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?



17 thoughts on “The problem with the Mask Analogy for Women with Autism

    1. This is so true and at 50 I am still struggling to “fit in” as I have split from my husband and had to go out into the harsh world of work (starting at the bottom of course) where there is little sympathy for anyone “different”. It makes my work so difficult and fraught.

  1. I just have to say that I have had pink hair. Putting on a mask is practically impossible for me. I can lie, but don’t know how to be anything but myself. Statements like “I was someone different then” have always seemed impossible to me, because you can’t be anyone else. Anyways.

  2. I dislike the analogy of a mask also. I would say I have many over-developed social skills acquired in a non-linear way. For example in almost all situations I ask myself ‘how would I feel if that happened to me?, and I am hypersensitive to other people’s pain partly because I have been victimized before. Instead of lack of eye contact I make intense eye contact, because I think it’s rude not to look at people when they are talking. What I lack is the ability to read body language. While some people are rude enough to tell me they don’t want to know about the reproductive lives of Panda’s I really don’t care they should listen because they might learn something. I am extremely honest which is another reason I hate this analogy. I can’t hide my emotions even if I want to because they are written all over my bloody face.

  3. I agree with the idea you are putting across…I think professionals need to stop focusing on the ‘masking’ and get to know the female profile. I actually can relate to the masking…I did want to fit in…not in the ‘to be cool’ kind of fitting in but more the ‘I don’t like attention’ type of fitting in. At heart and especially as a child I was very shy..I hated people looking at me and being the centre of anything. Once high school approached I was laughed at by peers i(females especially) if I made a social error or was naive to certain things….I was also bullied for coping other girls behaviours (trying to hard) and it was awful. I really just wanted to part of a group and for people to be was hard work and left me with a huge identity crisis even to this day. It was something I did to cope…I was a brilliant mimicker and sometimes not such a brilliant mimicker and I could become unstuck…a lot. I don’t think this behaviour did me any favours in the end but it’s what I grabbed on to and it seemed to help me get through those awful school years.
    I believe there is so much more awareness of the female profile now that professionals need to stop focusing on the masking and mimicking that some females tend to do and start focusing and recognising the struggles behind it all…..we need to be seen….not to be given excuses for their lack of knowledge and skill at recognising the profile. 🙂

  4. Exactly it’s sexism, when men are rude or blunt it’s seen as more normal if us girls do it people just try and hurt us and, hate us sometimes even…. who would think us women were still being treated unfairly because of both our sex and disability. We get more discrimination for apparently being rude than most.

  5. Also I’ve hidden parts of who I am tried to say what I thought people wanted tried to please people thinking everyone was nice, but I liked my self better when I was me, kind of learning to love me as me after people scarred me for life.

  6. Society tends to see young girls with autism as more ‘shy’ ‘reserved’ ‘quiet’ ‘mature’ ‘able to keep herself busy’ when she doesn’t talk much. They don’t see ‘she can’t find the words to express what she wants to say’. They see ‘she’s so quiet and calm; a good girl’ and not ‘she doesn’t know how to choose what to do, so she doesn’t do anything but watch’. Society expects (still!) little girls to be prim and proper; mini models of what a woman was supposed to be in the 1900s. Many autistic females grow up and grow into this model, because it worked as a child. a “good girl” doesn’t have a lot of demands placed on her. And goodness knows how autism likes a rut, especially when it’s a working one.

    The mask isn’t on the woman with autism, it’s on those who perceive her.

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