When trying to explain how my autism manifests and why it’s real even if I can mask it, I find myself fielding a set of variations on the question above.
Why don’t you just take classes on how to read faces?
Why don’t you just learn how to make/understand jokes?
Why don’t you just get a makeover so you can wear makeup properly and dress the way that is expected?
Why don’t you just practice exposure therapy so that you can stand big crowds and perfume and loud noises?
Why don’t you just eat whatever is served?
Why don’t you just learn the rules of social engagement and then follow them?
Why don’t you just stop obsessing over your special interest and start watching normal shows?
Why don’t you just wear contact lenses and high-heeled shoes when you want to dress up for a date?
Why don’t you just learn how to make small talk?
Why don’t you just work on your friendship skills so you’re not so isolated?
Why don’t you just stop noticing or caring about mistakes other people make?
In the end, it’s always the same question: Why don’t you just act more neurotypical? And the subtext here is — it’s more convenient for the rest of us if you just keep masking and we don’t have to notice that you are in pain or that we might be obligated to make some changes to our behavior (or to our world) in order to accommodate your needs?
I masked for decades. It was what I thought I had to do to be seen as a valuable human being in society. But it cost me constant migraines, nausea, and anxiety. It also cost me a real sense of self-esteem. The only self-esteem I had built was about a list of accomplishments I could point to that were “enough” to compensate for my social awkwardness, at least for some people.
I had a handful of friends, mostly people who have turned out to be on the spectrum themselves. They were the only ones I felt accepted by, like I could be my real self, and not be on constant guard in case I made a mistake in the never-ending and constantly changing unwritten rules of social engagement for neurotypical people. Otherwise, I was always putting on a show. If you’re a theater person, you might be used to putting on a show. I was actually in theater in high school. I’m not bad at it, because it is just another form of masking, pretending to be someone else. But what it isn’t is freedom to be yourself off stage.
I know it seems like any one little thing that you ask an autistic person to do as part of masking socially is small and insignificant. But it’s the weight of all of them all at the same time that makes it so that people like me give up at a certain point and start refusing to “even try.” Because we’re exhausted. We’re constantly burned out. We’ve had to put so much energy and work into all the things that you think of as easy and relaxing. Only they aren’t to us. We don’t seem to be ever allowed to relax.
And when you realize all of this, and you are at bottom with decades of being someone you aren’t, you can’t “just” do any of those things. Not for another second.