The Catch-22 of the Mask

This article was written by autistic advocate Austin Shinn and was originally published on his website A Flickering Life. It is reprinted here with his permission.

“If u can “disguise” your Autism then imo u cannot possibly have autism.”

One willfully ignorant tweet can set me off. That’s literally all it takes to get me blogging here. Seeing an attitude so absurd it makes me have to write. That’s what that comment did.

Autistic people live with one of the worst catch-22s in society. We are forced to put on a mask every day if we hope to function in society. If we don’t, we’re not able to survive in it. We’re ostracized and criticized to the point of emotional distress. We can’t expect to find work or peers.

Thus we learn to develop a mask. Many of us get pretty decent at it. We’re intuitive and pick up what we need to do to get by. It’s not hard to realize curbing your echolalia and flapping will help you get a job. We learn to act right.

And what do we get for it? We’re erased. The assumption becomes that since we can turn it off for a bit, we must be able to turn it off permanently. And I’m not just expanding on that tweet. I’ve heard people in my real life assume that because I can fake it for a bit, I must be exaggerating my autism.

This is something that has frustrated me my entire life. I can’t allow my mental health issues out into the open because they’re frowned upon socially but when I’m surviving it’s assumed they’re not there. I’ve had to give variations on this very topic repeatedly over the years to friends and family and I’m not sure society gets it.

So let me put it in a way that’s clear:

First off, we’re always autistic. It’s a condition that’s cradle to grave. It’s treatable but not curable. There are certain mental patterns that aren’t going away. We are who we are and you need to accept that.

Second, we’re able to fake it but faking it is exhausting. Imagine trying to play a role permanently but behind closed doors immediately reverting to yourself. It is utterly tiring to constantly put on a part. Not just physically but definitely emotionally. You feel frustrated because you can’t just collapse and be yourself. You hurt because you know you’re rejected.

Third, and most importantly, nobody knows what goes on in the minds of another. We’re often shocked when highly successful people take their own lives but the painful truth is we don’t know what they feel. It’s no different for any other condition. Just because you think we’re playing the part well doesn’t mean we’re seeking attention when we meltdown. Let me stress that nobody on Earth wants THAT attention. We want attention for good things we do. We are the best experts on autism, not someone who’s read a mommy blog!

Sadly I don’t expect this ever to change. But we solider on through the uncanny valley nonetheless fighting.

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  1. Naughty Autie


    “The assumption becomes that since we can turn it off for a bit, we must be able to turn it off permanently.”

    You forgot the assumption that has been held about some autistic people, including me, that if you can turn it off for bit, then you must be turning it on; i.e., that you’re faking being autistic. That’s half the reason I dropped the mask in my early thirties.

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