Peer Pressure and Authenticity

I had some trouble sleeping the other night, and as I was lying awake at 4 AM, I encountered a random memory from my childhood. I was at a public swimming pool with a friend, and we were watching people jump off the high diving board. The really high one, with the long ladder that took forever to climb up, and even longer to climb back down.

My friend and I had been diving off the lower diving board, or at least jumping off it; I wasn’t great at diving, and sometimes ended up with water up my nose when I dove head-first. That was very unpleasant, but I hated those pinching nose clips, which tended to come off when I hit the water anyway. In between jumps, my friend dared me to jump off the high dive, and said she would do it if I did. I told her I wasn’t interested, and swam away.

The thing is, I had already tried that once, which is how I knew that it took longer to climb back down the long ladder than it did to climb up it. I got up there once, and simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t jump. I felt a little embarrassed at having to climb back down the ladder in front of the other kids, but also intensely relieved that I didn’t have to do it. So that day in the pool, I knew this about myself. I didn’t like heights, so just climbing up there would have been unpleasant. And I knew from a couple of roller-coaster experiences that I didn’t like that feeling of falling, the way my stomach seemed to lurch up into my throat. Throwing myself off of a high diving board was not something I cared to do, especially not to satisfy a dare from someone else.

It’s not that I didn’t care what my friend thought of me; I just didn’t care enough for it to outweigh my own preferences. And because my friend was not an asshole, she didn’t make a big deal of it, and we continued to have a good time at the pool. I think she did go off the high dive, and I watched and cheered for her. If she had been an asshole about it, we wouldn’t have remained friends for long. That’s something I knew from experience as well, having had “friends” who turned on me over petty (or nonexistent) things in the past.

I think about things like this when I read about studies related to autistic people and what is called “reputation management,” or the presentation of self in a way that is designed to enhance others’ opinion of you. Self-presentation in general is an important part of social interaction, and it’s an aspect of sociology I’m particularly interested in studying with autistic people in mind, both in terms of reputation management and also in relation to autistic “masking” and “camouflaging.” In one particular interview study, Cage, Bird, and Pellicano found that autistic adolescents did have a desire to fit in with others, but many also valued authenticity and being true to themselves; they wanted to be accepted as someone who was different, rather than simply conforming.

This rings true with my experience, as in the diving board example above. I wanted my friend to have a good opinion of me, but that concern for my reputation was not as strong as my desire to not do something I didn’t want to do. In other cases, I did my share of camouflaging in order to fit in, but there was always a line where reputation concerns lost out to personal preference and/or authenticity. They still do.

This is a balance that everyone has to strike, I think; if we only care what other people think of us, we risk becoming a doormat instead of being ourselves. But I do wonder whether autistic people reach that tipping point—where a desire for authenticity outweighs reputational concerns—sooner than non-autistic people. Or maybe some of us are already masking our autistic traits so much that we just reach a point of exhaustion and can’t add on any more self-presentation strategies. Or possibly both things are true.

Various Goings-On

It’s been a busy summer, but a kind of comfortable busy; I’ve had plenty of time to pursue new things, as well as to relax, while moving forward with plans in several different directions. I’ve been spending a lot of time studying for the GRE, which I am taking this Saturday. (GRE stands for Graduate Record Exam, which is required by many graduate programs in the US; for those familiar with other US standardized tests, it’s kind of like the SAT but for graduate school. It’s about a four hour long test of English language and mathematical ability.) Most of my studying has been brushing up on math that I haven’t needed in over twenty years, most of which I expect not to need again after the test, but so it goes.

I’ve also been working on a couple of different writing projects, one of which I am hoping to finish up before fall classes start at the beginning of September. There’s a little over a week between getting through the GRE this weekend and the beginning of the semester, and I think that will be enough time. It’s nearly done as it is, I just need to do some final edits and put together an introduction that highlights the major points.

Speaking of the fall semester, I am also excited to say that I have been working on getting a Neurodiversity Club started at my school! We had a preliminary meeting back in June to gauge interest among students who identified as neurodivergent (in whatever way), and had a great response. A couple of us then worked together to put together a proposed club constitution, which we will finalize with the larger group later this week. Then it gets submitted to the Student Activities coordinator, and if she approves it, we present it to the Student Senate in September. I’m really excited about it, because it’ll be a way to provide peer support for neurodivergent students, as well as raise the profile of neurodiversity in general.

I’m excited to be getting back to school and starting new classes, too. I did take a week off from work and most other scheduled activities last week, which was nice. I visited family for a couple of days for my birthday, and then spent a lovely week at home with my husband and dogs. We both started playing the video game We Happy Few that week, which is a fantastic (but quite dark) game with a dystopian, alternate-history setting. (It’s got this wonderfully quirky and amusing tone, though, despite the eerie and often-depressing storyline. I like the combination quite a bit.) I heard about the game from Invisible Autistic, who drew a comparison between the game mechanics and autistic masking. Having played it for several hours at this point, I completely agree with the parallels she noted.

So, busy, but mostly busy with fun and engaging things. I’m hoping to get back to a more regular blogging schedule after this weekend; I’ll at least have new classes to talk about, and stuff about the Neurodiversity Club. I think one reason I like being in school is the structure it gives to my schedule. Work does that a little bit, but my current job is so flexible that it’s not quite enough structure. But speaking of which, I need to sign off and get working for today. Talk to you later!

On Masking

I’ve been thinking about the concept of autistic masking, sometimes also called camouflaging. This is the act of concealing or suppressing one’s autistic traits in order to appear “normal.” Masking may include the suppression of “stimming” movements or sounds, putting up with sensory inputs that are painful, forcing oneself to make eye contact, or following previously-practiced social scripts in order to blend in and appear non-autistic.

Such masking takes a toll on multiple levels. As Laura Hull and her co-authors found in “Putting On My Best Normal,” camouflaging is frequently experienced as mentally and physically exhausting, due to the constant vigilance required. Masking one’s autistic traits can also lead to a lack of support (or a lack of diagnosis altogether) because one’s struggles aren’t evident. Lastly, it can make one feel inauthentic, even to the point of losing touch with one’s own identity. And if you can never truly be yourself, all the connections you make with other people feel false as well.

Now, most people wear masks at least some of the time. Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a foundational book about this back in 1956, called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In it, he discusses the self as a performance: we try to manage the impressions others have of us by presenting ourselves in a certain light, hoping this will lead them to treat us the way we want to be treated. To do this, we choose what information to present about ourselves, and what to conceal.

This “impression management” is, essentially, masking: we reveal and conceal different parts of ourselves in order to be accepted and seen in the best possible light. Consider, too, how we present different aspects of ourselves in different contexts; the self we present in the workplace or classroom is not the same self we show to our friends at a party. (Theoretically, at least, if you go to parties.)

So, to some degree, masking is a universal phenomenon, and it can be a valuable social skill to have. Then why is autistic masking so often draining and even damaging? I believe the key lies in that opening phrase: to some degree.

Autism is such a pervasive difference in our “wiring” that masking it is a constant effort; it’s not like simply not mentioning some embarrassing incident, or making sure you don’t have spinach in your teeth. It’s more like trying to maintain strict control over every natural instinct you have in terms of how your body wants to move, how you express yourself, and how your mind works. So in trying to appear “normal,” autistics may need to mask a lot more than someone just trying to present themselves “at their best.” So of course it ends up being much more draining.

It’s also important to note that many aspects of masking can cause stress directly. Making eye contact is very uncomfortable, even painful, for many autistic people, but many of us do it to meet social expectations, or to make others more comfortable. Stimming movements such as rocking, finger-flicking, or tapping are often a way of relieving stress and/or burning off energy that has nowhere else to go, so restricting those behaviors then causes stress to increase in an already-uncomfortable social situation. Similarly, forcing oneself to put up with—or even pretend to enjoy—a sensory situation that is causing distress (but which no one else seems to mind) will increase stress as well, and can easily lead to a meltdown or shutdown later.

There is also a difference between voluntary masking and coerced masking. When someone is making a choice about how to present themselves in order to appear at their best, this is a voluntary decision. Sure, it’s stressful to put on your best social presentation during, say, a job interview, but that’s a choice you make to give a good first impression. When, however, you have been told over and over (explicitly or implicitly) that who you are is not acceptable, and yet you still wish to be accepted, your subsequent masking of those unacceptable traits is essentially coerced. In other words, when not masking is met with ridicule, bullying, and ostracism, you end up masking out of fear. So of course this will have negative effects.

This kind of coerced masking can even be completely unconscious, as it was for me before I learned about autism. I simply grew up absorbing the norms other people expected me to follow, even though they were often painful to follow (and when I was younger I probably didn’t follow them very well). Eventually this caused some serious burnout, because the exhaustion and constant vigilance mentioned above were just as real even though I didn’t know I was masking anything. Scratch that: I knew I was masking something, I just didn’t know it was autism. Ultimately, I was simply masking myself.

It’s really hard to get out of the habit of masking, though. For one thing, it does get to be a habit, especially after decades of doing it. For another, it’s sometimes hard to know the difference between the well-adjusted sort of social presentation that everyone does in order to keep good boundaries and maintain professionalism, and the self-negating camouflaging that capitulates to social norms that see autistic traits as inherently deficient. It’s a tricky position to be in, especially when you also want to be able to navigate the non-autistic world while still being true to yourself. And I don’t have a ready answer for how to do that; it’s still a work in progress.