I was born in 1983 and grew up in an age when girls weren’t really diagnosed with autism unless the symptoms they presented severely interfered with their daily life. A girl like me, quiet and awkward, a little weird, a little too obsessed with the Thing Du Jour (American Girl dolls, Mandie books, My Little Pony, Barbies, spooky stuff, etc.), mostly gets good grades but really struggles with homework in subjects she doesn’t like… I flew under the radar. I didn’t stim or do anything that would make me seem weird. I didn’t freak out when the sounds in the cafetorium/cafeteria were too much for me to handle, I just got really quiet and didn’t participate in the lunchtime conversation. I excelled in certain subjects and flailed in others. I was flawless when it came to standardized testing, but then got an 8/100 on a math test the same week I soared into the 93rd percentile for the NMSQT.
I could talk, and I took care of myself physically, enough that I didn’t usually warrant a second glance. Oh, I got bullied and made fun of in junior high–brutally at some points–but I flew under everyone’s radar for the most part. I don’t think anyone ever clocked me as weird enough to maybe be autistic, because back then, in the 1990s and early 2000s, autism wasn’t as well understood as it is today, so my cocktail of manifestations didn’t alarm anyone.
That and I masked.
Masking is pretty common in our world. We all wear masks sometimes to hide certain aspects of our personalities depending on the situation; for example, if you’re at an important job interview, you’re not exactly going to be showing off the part of your personality that likes to do keg stands or the part of your personality that likes to lounge around in the nude on weekends. There’s nothing wrong with either those traits or the masking of those traits. It’s just something that you do to survive socially, because your new boss does not need to know that you like a gentle breeze ‘round your privates on Sunday afternoons.
Where autism is concerned, masking is a lot more… consuming, let’s say. Autism isn’t a personality trait that shows up in certain situations (like even if I do like to run around naked on weekends, I don’t do that in the office); it’s the way your brain is wired. Not wrong, just different. The trouble is that different can be socially damning.
I remember when I was younger, there was a kid on my school bus whose autism manifested much more noticeably than mine. While I would sit quietly and stare out the window, focusing on the cool sensation of the glass against my forehead, he would talk and flail and laugh, and the kids from the back of the bus bullied him mercilessly, sometimes going so far as to sexually harass him. He stood out too much; it was social suicide.
And, well, I learned from that and from other small situations as I grew up that letting those weird parts of you show is too dangerous. That it’ll get you made fun of and torn to shreds. That you’ll be alone. I saw the girl who came from a lower income family, whose clothes and hair were always dirty, who always sat alone. She was too different; she was alone. I saw the kids who I now regret not befriending, who went on and on for days about D&D and all of those fantasy stories, and I saw how people avoided and laughed at them, and I learned a lesson. They were too different; they were mocked.
You hide things, you know? Don’t talk obsessively about Disney World, that’s weird. Are you excited about that thing? Don’t flap your hands or bounce or do a little dance; that’s weird. Are you too tired to think? Don’t play with your hair; that’s unhygienic (Mrs. Dube, if you ever read this, I hope you feel like shit for what you did to all of us in your class). Everyone is having fun at this party, and even though it’s too much for you, smile anyway. People think it’s weird when you talk to them without meeting their eyes; make eye contact, even though it hurts.
In a way, I sometimes felt like an alien, trying to learn the way that the world was supposed to work. It’s part of why I loved being onstage–it was like an evaluation of my ability to act like a human being. “SEE?” I could say, as I got into one of my character parts (I had so much fun with those). “LOOK AT HOW GOOD AT HUMANING I AM!” And I wasn’t weird or different, I’d unlocked the secret to being human like everyone else.
And then the lights went out, I got offstage, and I was right back to being bad at being a person again.
(this all sounds very sad, but I promise, there’s good coming)
But one thing nobody talks about, when they talk about masking and autism and all of that, is the beautiful freedom of unmasking: of finding someone or several someones who catch a glimpse beneath your mask, show how much they love you anyway or even because of what they see, and help you feel comfortable enough to remove your mask completely, to say, “fuck it, I am who I am.”
My most obvious example of this is Kyle. Over the early years of our relationship, he peeled back layers of my mask bit by bit, knowing what was underneath but letting me take my time to show him. And now, my god, how comfortable I am around him! We were watching The Mandalorian a little while ago, the episode where Moff Gideon reveals that he has the darksaber, and I shrieked and started flapping my hands, which I never do because I know it’s a weird thing, that even if I have the instinct to do it, people don’t like it when you do it, but with Kyle, it just hit me that maybe it’s okay, that maybe he loves that about me, and he does, and he smiled at me and just said that he knew I’d love that, and that was that.
GOSH I love him.
And I’ve been thinking about it, and I realized that my first intentional unmasking came when I did my semester at Oxford back in 2004. Away from people who knew the masked me, away from anyone who knew the big long plans I had for my life and the narrative strand I wanted my life to take, I felt free to just… be. Not to the extent of flapping my hands excitedly about things, but I went in exhausted, torn down from a shitty relationship right before I left, and basically stripped down to my essentials to a point where I just… couldn’t be bothered. After all, it was only 100 days, and if my housemates thought I was too weird, we’d all be going to different corners of the world after that anyway.
But they didn’t think I was too weird. Pretty weird, I’m sure (I am pretty weird, after all), but they liked me, the me with only the barest of masks on, and the best part about that was how it allowed me to solidify who I am, not just which mask I’m wearing. And since that point, I’ve been a lot less interested in hiding any part of me: autistic, neurotypical, pleasant, unpleasant. I am who I am, warts and all.
I also look back and think about the handful of “ones that got away,” you know, the people with whom you know you could have had something special, that even when you’re perfectly happy in the life you’ve got now, you regret the way things ended. And I realized that the ones that got away, the ones I wish I had actually connected with for longer than a millisecond, they all peeked beneath that mask and tried to let me be myself… and I got scared and ran, because even with that reassurance that hey, I love you for who you actually are, it’s hard to trust.
Because you know, you get people who want to remake the mask into something more to their liking or you get people who trust the mask is reality, but when someone genuinely wants to see what’s beneath the mask before you’re ready, even if they like what they see, you get scared.
Isaac, so far, has no mask. He looks to his brother and sister for information on how he should behave as a person–it’s fascinating to watch in real time–but he doesn’t pretend to be anything other than who he is. And he is an absolute delight of a child. He’s creative and funny and an absolute little shit in the best way possible.
(parents know that when you’re calling your kid a little shit, it’s not because you don’t love them; it’s because they figured out how to do something they weren’t supposed to do in a way that you can’t help feeling a little bit proud of. Like, no, you’re not supposed to have eaten 32 cookies before dinner, but the Rube Goldberg device you built to access the Oreos is technically amazing and I’m sending in your application for Mensa while also sending you to your room)
We call him our little rogue, because we are a D&D family, after all. Sam, with his strong sense of personal rules and tendency to charge headfirst into everything (walls included) is our paladin. Carrie, always performing and able to reduce you to giggles or tears with a single look, is our bard. But Isaac, climbing and sneaking and figuring out every possible puzzle, is our little rogue.
He likes to build and set things up in particular ways. He uses the books in his bedroom to make smaller rooms–setting them up at the foot of the bed or against the wall to make into a room with a door that opens and closes. And sure, he tears the pages out and tosses them around like confetti (we are down to about 3 books that he hasn’t destroyed, save for the older ones that come into the room for bedtime and leave afterwards), but the amazing creativity and cleverness he exhibits to build his own little rooms like that just astounds me.
And then his cars. He’s doing the stereotypical lining up cars thing, but he does it in such a way that the cars all face out of the window through which he watches cars coming up and down our street. And I just flail because what a guy! What a clever little dude! What an amazing mind at work!
We never discourage him from stimming; instead, we stim with him, the whole family gets involved. We turn on his favorite music, and the five of us just rock with him, and he has this HUGE smile on his face because he’s not alone. His family gets him. We’re not going to stop him from being who he is.
I think the fact of him eventually masking is inevitable; even in a more enlightened world, 30 years after I was a weird kid combing her hair with a fork in the first grade, you can only deviate from the norm so much before people start giving you a wide berth. He’ll have a teacher scold him at some point for rocking too much during a test or he’ll get teased for talking too much about cars with another person. He’ll learn to hide those aspects of himself for a while, around people who don’t know him well enough to love him for who he is. And I hate it.
I hope that Isaac understands this: that he doesn’t need to mask around us. That we’ve seen the way he’s made from the very beginning. We know why he does what he does, and we love it about him. Isaac, unmasked, is the person we love and always will.