When I first started reading about masking, I assumed it was just something autistic children did when they were school. I saw it in very simplistic terms. Holding all their feelings in: the confusion, the sensory overwhelm, the desire to be the same – until they came home and the mask dropped. It all comes flowing out.
I knew all about the after-effects of masking even before I had heard the word. JJ would come home from nursery school aged three and rip up stickers, colouring books, throw toys, scream and hit me. He was verbal, but his language was pretty limited when I think back. He didn’t have then, and still doesn’t have, the ability to identify feelings and verbalise them. Oh believe me, he is incredibly fluent in subjects he is interested in, using complex language, but when it comes to feelings and emotions – it’s as if he has no words to draw upon.
Back to when he was three. Post-masking frustrations reverberated through his little body, and he released them in the only way he knew how. My heart aches to think how this puzzled me and I ignorantly attributed it to ‘naughtiness’. Many of you will have told by teachers, upon mentioning your child’s explosive behaviour at home, that they don’t show any signs of distress at school. You may have felt at a loss, as I did, over why this was was happening.
This emotional aftermath, often referred to as ‘the coke bottle effect’ continued right through JJ’s school life. And when it combined with demand avoidance, he began having meltdowns in the classroom when I came to collect him at the end of the day. Explosive, angry and resentful that I had once again subjected him to a day of being in a foreign land – misunderstood by the teachers, sick to his stomach with the food smells and confused by the social interactions which he could not comprehend. Believe me, if I had a time machine, his early life would look very, very different.
But it’s only recently that I’ve started to really consider the other kinds of masking he does, and the affect that this has on him and our life.
Have you ever been told by your partner, family member or friend that ‘they don’t behave like that when they’re with me!’. I’ve heard this too many times to mention, and I still sometimes hear it now. It’s as if the person is saying that YOU are somehow the instigator of the ‘unwanted behaviour’…
It’s as if they are insinuating that your child has innate control of their emotions, but the child *chooses* not to exercise that control in front of you. Are you enabling the behaviour perhaps?
It’s as if they are saying that *your parenting* is somehow responsible for allowing the child to lose control…
I’m guessing I’m not alone in having experienced these, ahem, shall we call them ‘ignorant’ comments? What’s so hard to make anyone who doesn’t have lived experience of autism and PDA understand is that this ‘unwanted behaviour’ they only witness when we are around, is simply because our child does not feel the need to mask when in our presence.
They are being themselves. Truly, honestly, completely, amazingly, frighteningly, unapologetically THEMSELVES.
Masking happens when an autistic person doesn’t feel completely safe. JJ sometimes masks in front of his dad and grandma, and this is by no means an indication that they are not caring, understanding and meeting his needs the best they can. It’s just an indication that I am his safe person. And then he’s with me, he puts the mask away. When he’s with them, the mask is always close by. Just in case.
This is nobody’s fault, and it may not always be this way. But in a world where so many things frighten, confuse and don’t make sense to our children surely we can understand that their intense emotional vulnerability needs to be protected, especially when they’re away from their safe person. And this is all they are doing by masking. Self-preservation.
Please don’t ever let anyone insinuate that your autistic/PDA child’s ‘negative/unwanted’ behaviour is *enabled* by you. It’s simply not true.