Written in July 2023
Masking is a bit like performing. It's a role, a character, a persona that we inhabit that helps us navigate the outside world. It can help keep us safe from discrimination but it is often done for the benefit of those around us, to make them feel comfortable despite us being deeply uncomfortable. It is an unreasonable adjustment that we make frequently for the benefit of everyone, and seldom for the real benefit of us. It is like being on stage.
I'm comparatively lucky not to have to mask much at home. I live with my mum, but I lived alone before that and could go days without having to mask at all. I'd also get plenty of warning about needing to mask, and it would be my decision to do so. As an example, deciding I need to go to the shop and choosing when to go allowed me plenty of notice of masking being required.
I don't have to mask much around mum but I still have to a bit. Things like saying “good morning” are things I find a bit pointless, but I get that other people need them to feel comfortable or to meet some need for social interaction. If I need to focus on something I can put earplugs in, or say that I can't be disturbed or spoken to for the next hour or however long. She understands this, and why I have to have uninterrupted brain time, but many people are not so lucky.
Over the last couple of days I've had to mask a lot at home. We've had decorators in and although I was away Monday and Tuesday (training) and am going away on Sunday until Wednesday (camping to escape the upheaval at home) the last 48 hours have been hellish. I'm finding it hard to cope with people being in the house, the noise, the fact that everything is in a different place, and all the extra small talk and conversation I'm expected to have.
I can't feasibly leave the house for the entire time they're here, because they arrive at 8 and wake me up with the incredibly loud stamping on the stairs and the shouting (both are unable to conduct a conversation at an indoor-volume level). If I don't get to do my morning routine I'm going to be a mess for the rest of the day so I have to try and do that, but it's hard to do Duolingo with that racket going on. It's also quite a challenge to do yoga, an activity that I normally find grounding and centring, with stamping, shouting and tool noises.
Basically, I'm not getting enough sleep and my morning routine has been one of compromise, so my masking skills are already a little out of reach; my functioning is impaired from the get-go. If I leave the room I'm in to get tea, or some food, or my bag because I have to go out there's a conversation (at a loud volume) that I'm expected to have, because it's considered rude to
look after your mental wellbeing and do what you need to refuse to engage in small talk and answer questions you weren't expecting.
This means I have to do a lot of masking at home at the moment and it is really bloody hard, because the way I cope with masking well in the outside world is having a lot of off-stage time, a lot of non-performance time where I can just exist without all the performance of being around people. I've had a lot of outside demands as well from various things – life seems to schedule everything in at once.
I've tried to talk to mum about it, but she says that Dave is a nice man. Right... does that mean I'm supposed to push myself to breaking point interacting with him? What does his personality have to do with the burden on me to make chit chat? Apparently, quite a lot. Apparently, if people are nice, I'm supposed to put more effort into my masking for their sake. I don't understand this and I never will, I just have to accept that this is how it works. It takes more effort to mask for nice people than for arseholes. I supposed that's some kind of silver lining?
I will try and avoid small talk at home because I'm meeting an autistic friend later to see her picture in an exhibition and I've been looking forward to that for weeks. In itself that's not a stressful interaction because we're both autistic and understand if the other one is feeling overstimulated but it still means driving to a town with a horrible one-way system and lots of people. I want to use my limited functioning on that, and not on talking about surfing, or paint with people that aren't a real part of my life.
I'm going to be so glad when they've gone, and I'm even more thankful that my cat-sitting favour for a friend coincides with roofers being here to do the fascias and soffits in two weeks' time! I'm also really thankful for my weighted blanket turning up yesterday because that, combined with an early night has restored me a bit through quality rest. If I can keep getting rest, peace, and time for the things that help me, I can manage this constant overstimulation and stop it pushing me into burnout.
A lot of autistic people are not in this fortunate position where they (usually) have ample unmasked time at home, and it's a real eye-opener for me to see how different my life (or my ability to cope) would be if I was constantly required to mask. If you're autistic, I can recommend getting some earplugs to block out noise as much as possible, because that's helping a lot. I can also recommend finding any and all ways to spend time alone, whether you pretend to be asleep, on the phone to a friend in your room, or out for a walk somewhere quiet.
If you're a neurotypical partner, housemate or family member of an autistic person, please relieve their “peopling” burden and let them just exist at home without having to have some kind of interaction every time they're within sight or earshot of someone else. You might say “I'm just making conversation” or “it's only a few words” and that's your experience of it, to you, it really is “just a few words”. It's never “just a few words” to us, though. It can be the thing that stops us functioning that day, and over time we end up in burnout.
Let us have our homes as our dressing rooms, because the whole world's a stage.
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