I wanted to expound upon my explanation and personal experience with masking and camouflaging that I shared yesterday because its weight in my life, and the lives of many autistic women, is enormous. It also has significant clinical ramifications. This “chameleon” ability is often what makes identifying girls to evaluate for autism so challenging. Many autistic people, including myself, have an uncanny ability to notice and catalog patterns around them (whether mathematical or social). I think in patterns, I see the world through a lens that seems to illuminate and magnify patterns, and I’m naturally inclined to live my life in patterns (routines, predictability, etc.).
Autistic females tend to study the patterns of social interactions as meticulously as any other pattern, using the data to shape their own behavior and presentation to replicate the core of the pattern to fall in place as seamlessly as possible. The stereotype is that autistic boys are more typically seen following the beat of their own drum, publicly announcing their special interests, failing to necessarily abide by typical hygiene expectations in our culture, dressing in a way that’s comfortable or self-expressive but not always in line with peers or fashion trends, and speaking in a cadence, timbre, and monotone that stands out as against the typical speech of age-matched boys. On the other hand, while autistic girls authentically parallel these differences, they are more likely to devote a lot of attention and effort to noting their aberrations and consciously working to close the gap in the disparity between who they are, how they look, how they talk, and how they act with the peer group at large. As masters of pattern recognition and skilled at the craft of mimicry, autistic girls (and women) often slide under the radar of who should be tested. They are often identifiable as somewhat “different,” “quirky,” “precocious,” “shy,” or “oddball,” but frequently the overt, and perhaps even disruptive peculiarities are typically absent due to the partial success of the deliberate efforts to tamp down such differences. Teachers, parents, coaches, and other adults who work with an autistic girl who’s able to effectively mask or camouflage, are thus are less likely to notice potential issues and identify that the girl might need a referral for neuropsych testing and a behavioral/autism evaluation. Without such a referral, “early” diagnosis isn’t made, which means that helpful services like social skills therapy and occupational therapy are not initiated. This, unfortunately, means that autistic girls often fall behind on these skills and the deficits become greater over time. Moreover, at least in my case, the pain and problems of desperately trying as hard as possible to fit in really start to take their toll: depression, low self-esteem, anxiety (especially in social contexts), decreased sensory tolerance, exhaustion, and a feeling of being broken. These feelings can become deeply rooted as time goes on and lead to debilitating mental health problems, affecting relationships, aspirations, feelings of self-worth, success in school and employment, and ability to function independently and with a good quality of life.
Equally damaging, if not more dangerous, is that the roots of masking and camouflaging center around wanting to be accepted and feeling less-than or undeserving. For me personally, it felt like I needed to work for approval; I was not “right” as I was and I was not enough. This can potentially put an autistic girl determined to be accepted in dangerous situations, overlooking or missing cues that someone is a bad person preying on her nativity and eagerness to please. Layered on top of the desire to be validated and seen as “worthy” of someone’s attention and care is the frequent difficulty that many autistic people have in common—the inability to accurately read people, interpret nonverbal behavior, and stand up for themselves. It’s a devastatingly unfortunate truth that the rates of sexual assault and abuse are far higher in autistic females over neurotypical ones. It’s plausible that the innate “need” to not be disagreeable or be different might predispose autistic girls and women to garner the unsafe attention of predatory people, not just rapists. I often found myself in situations where I was being taken advantage of, but I was reluctant to stand up for myself and cut ties because I didn’t feel I deserved any better and having some “friend,” even one that walked all over me, seemed better than total loneliness. Of course, I had many true friends who treated me respectfully and with love, but that was not always the case; I think I had a disproportionately high number of people who used me—and I let them.
I think that a lot of my low self-esteem and feeling unworthy comes from my belief that I needed to change or conceal who I was to better fit in and be accepted in my social circles. Additionally, being teased and bullied and committing social faux pas and getting laughed at reinforced that I needed to change and shed my weirdness. I cannot even approximate the number of times I was called a “weird,” “freak,” “loser,” etc. Sensitive kids (and I was always the epitome of sensitive!) don’t handle these jabs well. While they might initially roll off, when it happens all the time by basically everyone in your classroom, sports team, and even CCD class, your spirits get squashed down. You believe the words and understand the negative connotation they carry; you learn you are undesirable.
Growing up, I didn’t have to wear my mask much at home; that was my safe space. However, that luxury became less of the norm as I aged past about 8 years old. My parents, understandably, frequently compared my lack of behavioral control and other oddities (which I believe were rooted in sensory sensitivities) to the preferable, proper behavior and mannerisms of my older sisters. There was definitely a “they are better” attitude ascribed to the comparison. Consequently, I was painfully aware that I was deficient, did not measure up, and needed to change to stop being “me” and start being like them. I knew I was the “handful” or the “headache” and struggled to live up to the standards my sisters set and my parents expected. I felt deeply disappointing and terribly about myself.
I have since found little diaries I kept from the ages of 8-13, and it rips my heart apart to read how badly I felt about myself. I did my best to step up and camouflage to a degree, but these efforts were not as fruitful as I would have liked (and I imagine my parents would have agreed!).
Fortunately, I never have to mask or camouflage around my family anymore. Their unconditional love is more clear, and the confidence in the safety in unmasking is augmented by our collective awareness of my autism diagnosis and concomitant problems. It not only feels liberating to be free to be me without fearing rejection, ridicule, or consequence. More importantly, it’s a requisite step in starting to heal my grossly deflated self-worth, a product of 30 years of my life feeling so different than everyone in my piece of the world around me without understanding as to why.
I am learning to brave standing in my naked, authentic skin without any mask or camouflaging skin in my life at large. Ben has always accepted me with open arms and even celebrated my quirks and unique traits. The friends in my corner, while few, also allow me to be myself. I still operate from a place of paralyzing fear that they will not like me for me, so I still instinctually mask to some degree. I’m fully masked in my employment as well and have not disclosed my diagnosis. It will be a process to fully come out and own who I am with as much pride and love for myself that any healthy, well-adjusted person should embody, autistic or neurotypical alike. With that said, tasting the benefits of losing the mask—particularly in the self-esteem repairing realm—and the consequences of denying myself that right are powerful motivators to push myself to take the risk and put trust in others to respect and accept me without inflicting ridicule or shame. Masking and camouflaging originate as self-protective behaviors, but ultimately, over time, it’s apparent that they can be self-destructive instead. They also were only partially effective for me because I was rarely able to consistently don the guises; either the discomfort with presenting inauthentically would build up or the cognitive and emotional demand to maintain an alter ego of sorts would overwhelm my brain’s processing capacity when other demands on its functions presented themselves in real time. Like the immense pressure building up behind a shoddily-constructed dam, at some point, structural failure—starting as a leak and rapidly precipitating into a complete deluge would result. Amber as genuine Amber with all my idiosyncratic and oddities was exposed. I faced more rejections and got phased out of friendship groups, the ownership of which is partially due to their resultant attitude toward me and my own insecurities I projected back on them that they would invariably tease me and stop accepting me. I know I shoulder some of the responsibility for the friendships that were abandoned; low self-esteem, humiliation, and self-preservation can be toxic. However, hopefully, even though it feels as though I have an endless road to hoe before me toward being proud of who I am, I’m very motivated to get to that destination.