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Where’s My Copy of the Social Rule Book? Autism and Masking

Updated: Jun 10, 2023

DSM-V criteria aside, the first thing I learned that made Autism click into place for me was this common phenomenon within the autistic community: that there’s some kind of rulebook for social situations that everyone has access to – except you.

Person peaking through white blinds.
Photo by Noelle Otto

Learning to Blend In

As a child I learned early on that the things you say, your behaviour, your body language, all affect how you’re perceived by others. I also learned that if I was going to appear normal, I had to conform to these principles. This is called masking which involves: suppressing certain behaviours autistics find soothing but that others think are ‘weird’, such as stimming or intense interests. It can also mean mimicking the behaviour of those around us, such as copying non-verbal behaviours, and developing complex social scripts to get by in social situations, (National Autistic Society).


Let’s look at an example:


A Story

First grade. I might have been five years old. We were working on math. My favourite subject. Specifically we were working on counting by two’s and three’s and so on. To challenge myself I chose to count by four’s. Every now and then I’d get stuck and look off into the distance thinking of what number came next.


A student teacher caught me and asked what I was doing. I said I was thinking. I was trying to count by four’s. She told me two things. One, that I should try something easier. And two, that I should have a thinking face. She even acted it out accordingly. Tilted head, hand on chin, in thought.


I must have looked at her like she had three heads. This was the first I’d heard of a “thinking face.” And I was so not choosing something easier to count by. That’s boring. I thought the whole interaction was preposterous and unnecessary. But I tried it out, just so she would leave me alone. The thinking face, not counting by something easier. I had standards, ok.


Growing Up “Shy”

From there the blending in, or masking, slipped into my subconscious. I started changing my behaviour without thinking, without realizing it. I had always been a quiet kid, but masking soon blossomed into shyness. I would rather keep my mouth shut and pretend to not want to talk rather than say the wrong thing. The masking may have been unconscious, but the weird looks I received when I did speak were not. Thus, shy, was a label I gladly hid behind.


At least in public anyway.


In private I would talk my parent’s ear’s off. Or my grandmother’s, whom I spent a lot of time with during the summer and on any snow or P.A. day. We’d sit eating breakfast until almost noon just talking. Then we’d get ready for the day and find ourselves back at the table eating lunch and talking some more.


I typically got along better with adults than kids my own age. I still joke that I sometime’s liked my friend’s parents better than my actual friend. I’d rather sit with the adults at get-togethers and watch them play cards than be planted in front of the TV with a movie.

Friends and School

When it came to school, I, thankfully, was never bullied. In part because I learned to mask at such a young age. However, I pin it mostly on attending such a tiny elementary school where my peers had been the same since kindergarten (with a few transfers here and there.)


When I got to high school I was astonished to learn that a new acquaintance’s graduating class held 61 students. Mine was 16.


And I loved it that way.


While there was no shortage of school drama and friend groups, I considered us all to be friends. Maybe not close friends, but I knew I could count on them.


When Things Changed

This shyness lasted until seventh grade. Then I finally started opening up, and started gaining some confidence.


Part of masking was hiding everything about myself. Which is why no one knew I held one of the top grades in math until grade 7. I excelled in every subject actually (except English, but that’s a whole other story).


Looking back I feel a small pang that my peers, who I’d know for several years already didn’t know this about me. I had always prided myself on my grades and my work, yet these people that I knew since I was four years old, hadn’t known. At the time, however, I was just excited to show off.


By high school, things changed once again and I was back to my shy, quiet self with zero confidence. But I already knew how to blend in, I already knew the “rules,” how to stay under the radar, how to slip through unnoticed, invisible.


A slightly different label, yes, but one I hid behind just the same.


I’m Not Adult Enough

Then came college. Twenty years old. And I’d never had to make friends. I’d never had to actually work at it. Despite this, I flourished. I was finally around like-minded individuals. Individuals I’d never known before and therefore could create a new mask around.


I didn’t have to be shy or quiet Brittany, I could be confident Brittany. I could raise my hand in class, ask questions, and help my peers out. Mind you I still remained pretty quiet. But I was happier, more confident, bubbly.


Until I got home at the end of the day.


I’d crash. Just like high school, I’d throw on my pajamas and have a nap. Homework was out of the question. I’d do it all on the weekend or between classes the next day. That bubbliness I started the day with, vanished. No more smiles here. Just exhaustion.

Finally, A Diagnosis

My third and final year of college approached and I was finally armed with the knowledge I’d always needed. I was autistic.


How did I discover this? I didn’t. Nor did any of the dozen’s of therapists I’d been seeing since high school. It was my step mom. After two years of living together, that finally put the pieces together.


My unawareness of my tone and how I came across to others, my awkwardness during conversations, when reading a room.


I knew little about Autism. I recalled only a Ted Talk I’d watched about a young autistic boy attending college level math courses. For some reason, I’d admired him. His unintentional jokes - and his intentional ones. How his mind worked, how his behaviour came across to others.


I remember this conversation with my sister, my step mom, and my dad quite vividly. Not what was said exactly, but what I experienced, my internal thoughts. See, my step mom was quite nervous about broaching the subject, she went on for a while discussing my behaviours of some of the things she’d noticed over the two years of knowing me.


Meanwhile, before she’d even began speaking, only that she had something to say, my brain went: She thinks you're autistic. She’s going to say you’re autistic.


How did I know this? I haven’t a clue.


We laughed about it later, but my step mom did admit it freaked her out a bit. Frankly, it freaked me out too.


Moving Forward

I still struggle with my “tone.” I more often than not have no idea how I sound when I speak. But I know directly after the words have left my mouth by the reactions I get from the people around me.


Masking is an everyday challenge. Something I still do without realizing it. It's a habit, muscle memory. It turns itself on automatically.


As for this social rulebook – there’s a lot I still don’t understand. But I do understand myself. I know how my mind works now, who I can drop the mask around. Because, yes, my tone might be a problem, some of the things I say might come across differently than I intended, but the people in my life know why. And that has been the greatest gift: understanding.

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