The problem with the Mask Analogy for Women with Autism

Digital art by Rik Oostenbroek

A mask is a false external covering.

It can be worn to conceal a person’s true identity for better or for worse.

The idea that Women with High Functioning Autism are not being adequately diagnosed, simply because they wear masks, also carries within it the ideation that all women with Autism intentionally try to conceal their true selves in order to ‘pass as normal’.

This in turn implies that all women with Autism willingly engage in the act of perpetrating some form of female deception which, in turn, somehow creates the inability of professionals to recognize them for who they are.

The idea that women are fiendish creatures, capable of deceiving men, is not a new one.

In fact, that particular idea is as old as humanity and has been used successfully over the course of history to deny women the same basic human rights and considerations as men.

Which is why I’m not convinced that the increasingly accepted notion that women with Autism are being misdiagnosed because they “mask” their symptoms, is an entirely valid or correct one.

So let’s look at this concept of ‘masking’ a little more closely.

Women with Autism will often express the feeling that they’ve ‘never fit in’ with those around them and that they’ve always, including childhood, felt somehow ‘different’ to others.

As far as I can see, such expressions are not consistent with the idea of ‘masking one’s true self’ from others.

If anything, most women diagnosed later in life often express a sense of both exasperation and sadness over the fact that no one close to them either noticed or addressed their difficulties as a child.

So what are we to make of these facts?

Are we to say that the inability of those around them to acknowledge their differences and their needs, as children (girls), somehow created in them a desire to ‘pretend’ or ‘mask’ who they were?

To me such rhetorical connections make no sense at all, as it would be more accurate to say that women with Autism experienced having their needs ignored as children, rather than saying that they ‘masked’ their needs under such circumstances.

Whilst, it may be fair to say that as we grow older we learn how to try to ‘fit in’ better, I don’t think it is equally fair to say that we learn how to ‘mask’ ourselves better.

We don’t ‘mask’ ourselves but we do try our best to ‘fit in’.

As far as I know, the desire to ‘fit in,’ to not stand out and therefore become the object of ridicule, is a trait that is common to all humanity and not just those of us who are female and have Autism.

And this is the problem with the mask analogy.

Everyone tries to ‘fit in’.

Not everyone, however, practices deceit in order to do so.

We women with Autism are a profoundly honest lot.

Our honesty, along with our lack of awareness of social cues, forms one of our key features.

We are so honest with other people that our honesty often see’s us labelled as ‘blunt’ or ‘rude’.

Given these facts, perhaps someone can tell me just how it is, that we ‘mask’ our true selves again?

Oh yes, that’s right, we ‘pretend’ to be ‘normal’.

Well obviously we’re not doing a very good job of it, are we, if we’re constantly being accused of being too ‘blunt’ or ‘rude’.

We also apparently make ‘easy targets’ of ourselves because in reality, we are more often than not, the people who are lied too and taken advantage of  by others.

Given all of this, one could ask; just whose perception of ‘normal’ are we applying here and whose definition of ‘pretending’ or ‘masking’ are we using?

A mask is usually used to denote a form of visual perception, a false front, a concealment.

So are we being accused of ‘masking’ our true selves simply because we look so normal?

If that’s the case, may I just point out one simple fact, of course we are going to look like human beings because we are human beings.

Women with Autism are not some kind of exotic sub-species, (demarcated by purple spots or pink hair), any more than men with Autism are.

We can’t change who we are and in all honesty, most of us don’t try to ‘mask’ who we are either.

What we do is try to ‘fit in’ so that we can avoid being ‘easy targets’ for disreputable people to hit.

And what makes us easy targets?

Our trust, our propensity for taking people at face value and our inability to discern when someone is deceiving or lying to us.

Clearly the only things we need to get better at ‘masking’  are our vulnerabilities. Oh but wait, isn’t that exactly the very thing we’re already meant to be so blindingly good at?

‘Masking’ our true selves so well that we confuse professionals?

Think about it.

Is the mask analogy, truly one that  fits, women with Autism?