“Most of the time I don’t find autism to be the struggle, I find other people’s understanding of autism to be the struggle”.
You may have encountered a number of quotes, phrasings by people on the spectrum about ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). But have you ever wondered which thoughts lead them to express emotions in such a manner? I bet you haven’t! In this day and age, society has become the centerpiece where myriads of people get together. This world may be diverged because of race, religion, economic status, or skin color yet undivided by the mere essence of human bonds and morals. Altogether, they build up the essential principles of our community, which make it a healthier and an exemplary place for us fellow civilians to live. However, is it the same for people with autism?
ASD is a neurodiverse condition, where it compasses a wide range of symptoms and severity. This disorder affects and alters the way people communicate, learn and interact with others. Because of these small-scale differences, they stand out from the rest of the crowd and that is where ‘The Label’ comes from. A community, which regards normalcy as a privilege, does not welcome people who are different than the norm. Our general public has a tendency not to perceive autism as a mere disorder, rather a disability. This social stigma encircling the autistic community makes them feel unwelcomed and outed.
Don’t they try to escape from this prejudiced social hierarchy? Don’t they feel uncomfortable with all the peer pressure? Yes, they do! Social acceptance and understanding of their feelings, opinions are aspects they cherish as well. Masking of autism is such a social survival strategy used by people with autism to camouflage or conceal their certain behaviors. Masking begins when autistic people identify distinctive actions and doings that can be classified as ‘normal’. As autism is a spectrum disorder, the way people show masking may vary, but anyway this imitating strategy gives them a helping hand in blending in with the neurotypical people in society. Some of such masking behaviors are,
- Forcing or faking eye contact during conversations.
- Imitating smiles and other facial expressions.
- Hiding or minimizing personal interests
- Mimicking gestures
- Developing a repertoire of rehearsed responses to question.
“Why blend in when you can stand out”? Someone may wonder. Can you even imagine getting the spotlight throughout all your lifetime? This may be exhilarating to some, but not for people who have been harassed or rejected by peers because of their differences. In most places and situations neurodiversity is misunderstood. Hence they get rather detached and isolated from the rest of the crowd. All the same, these people on the spectrum are also souls with emotions and feelings. They crave love, affection, and friendships like us too. Though we do not like to admit it, often we have been ignorant of these people’s feelings and needs. It never occurs to us how lonely and sad they must be feeling due to lack of social involvement. Masking helps them to build up relationships with friends and people they love, succeed at work, escape from bullying, etc. Camouflaging and adjusting to this masking process also assists them to fulfill their urge to fit in society.
Genders and sex play a key role in masking as well. Studies have suggested that girls and women are most likely to engage in masking than boys. For the most part, this must be true because it is a habit of females to build up bonds with the same age, whereas boys like to shy away and kill the time by themselves.
Regardless of how much masking may appear as a benefit, it surely comes with a cost. In fact, it might be a huge disadvantage to autistic people. Masking is a complicated strategy that requires observing and learning neurotypical behaviors and constant mimicking of them. Nevertheless, people with autism may appear as ordinary, and there is still a possibility of them getting not accepted and valued, and even if they did, it demands a high amount of their energy and concentration. This may result in taking a massive toll on their mental and physical health. This camouflaging of the spectrum can cause serious effects like anxiety, depression, and exhaustion which are adverse conditions of mental health. Masking of personal traits, interests for prolonged times can lead to loss of their personality. They may start to feel like they are self – betraying their inner persona. If this is to continue for too long, the risk of having suicidal thoughts may increase too. Their precious life itself will begin to feel like a burden due to social judging and persistent suppression of their truer selves.
As a matter of fact, our dear lives are too short to be worried. Given the current Covid-19 pandemic situation everything has become uncertain and unreliable. Autism may be a misinterpreted disorder but what we should not forget is that people with autism are also humans. They ought to be understood and accepted as the rest of humankind. Their feelings should not be disregarded or ignored. People on the spectrum live in a box full of skepticism and distress due to the many ruthless judgments of the general public. Creating a world where autism and many disorders are accepted, valued and every single person regardless of their status, is treated with utmost respect and equality will minimize the necessity of masking and its negative consequences. Supposing ASD is a blessing in disguise, indeed we can make this world a better place without harassment.
Spectra is the latest initiative of RACFOSUOC to raise awareness on autism and support the people on the spectrum. Stay tuned with us for more updates on our virtual second phase of the project.
By Rtr. Nishakya Liyanarachchi