An autistic woman writes about autistic masking, copyediting, and the constructed self.
I have an English literature MA and am a lifelong bookworm. I’ve been editing for friends since I was in high school. I was a TA for 5 years, marking papers and teaching persuasive writing. I’m a freelance writer and editor. The point is, copyediting is my jam.
Here’s what copyediting looks like before masking comes into play:
- See error
- Fix error/revise sentence
- It takes as long as it takes
- No additional comments
Here’s what it looks like after a whole bunch of negative experiences and masking adjustments:
- See error
- Will the writer agree this is an error? I wouldn’t want to upset them by presuming to impose my views on their writing, in case they’re territorial (recall bad memory #1: the time I offended someone by making too many changes)
- Maybe I should leave it.
- If I leave it and it WAS an error, they’ll think I’m incompetent. They’ll tell others and use this as an example. No amount of retroactive damage control can repair my reputation (recall bad memory #2: the time my reputation was damaged forever because I missed something)
- Eventually make a decision about the copy error. Fix it or don’t; maybe add a comment referencing section and paragraph of the style guide as a defensive measure.
- Next line. I want to revise this sentence because it seems overly complicated.
- Will this writer agree?
- Add a comment carefully explaining why I made the revision. If I don’t, the writer might make me justify every change afterwards (recall bad memory #3: a writer who sat down with me for 30 mins after I edited anything of theirs, to make me justify each revision in detail)
- This has all taken too long. I’m now behind in relation to uninformed expectations of how long editing takes. (recall bad memory #4: being told I’m “slow” because I was told to MAKE SURE I had the correct legal names; I spent hours researching, to make SURE). Panic sets in.
- Since this all took too long, now I am rushing through my formatting & layout edits. The time limit was one of the few firm requirements I was given, so I adjust the amount of editing I can do to fit.
- I missed something obvious.
- The writer sends it back.
- Now flustered and panicking, I fix the first thing I missed, only to miss something else.
- Now the writer is convinced I’m a screwup of an editor.
That’s masking. A simple task that I love becomes a minefield of bad memories, frantic compromises, dread and failure.
Now imagine every task you do, all day, is just like that. Getting dressed. Writing an email. Grocery shopping. Taking transit. Talking to your boss.
With masking, each task is a maze of painful memories, the adjustments I made to avoid those things ever happening again, the frustration of knowing others won’t understand, some new thing I’m trying that might blow up in my face, and never ever enough time or information.
Masking never feels easy even when I manage it. It always feels like a high-speed game of chess where you could lose the game if you leave your pawn open, because your opponent gets to decide that what you call a pawn is actually a queen.
Masking turns our favourite things, our best skills, into nightmares because we can’t just do the thing. We have to do it in ways and parameters that we don’t fit, in timeframes we can’t possibly meet, with people who don’t understand us.
At a past editing job, I would hear, “I don’t get it. You’re working on your PhD! How could you miss this?” I’m a good editor. I’m not a good people-er. They are different skillsets, kind of like how many literate women in Renaissance England were taught to read but not write. Today, that’s hard to imagine; how could you know one & not the other? But they’re separate functions. So I have the linguistic skills to edit, but not the social ability to grok unspoken work expectations. Those are different skills. Neurotypical culture doesn’t see that.
So we mask. Every time we encounter that special blend of confusion and anger that tells us we broke a social norm, we manually figure out a fix. We observe others & incorporate what we can understand of their behavior into our own. We create a halfway acceptable person and then neurotypical society tells us we’re being fake and calculating, for doing what others don’t have to: disguising ourselves.
That’s the identity crisis. and it is, itself, manufactured by Englightenment ideals of selfhood as a pure, essential, unchanging identity.
Historically, identity and selfhood have always been contested, negotiated territories. (I am writing a doctoral thesis on English Renaissance selfhood). The autistic model of selfhood, with the performative masking, is actually an old and equally valid approach to identity. For generations, people had to be taught manners, public behavior, negotiating, charm. You’d study books, take classes, practice. There was also a crucial distinction between public vs private life. You were expected to mask in public, but your private life was your own.
But now, the mask never comes off. In fact, it’s not even supposed to exist. That’s why autistics struggle so much. We’re living in a particularly demanding social culture that refuses to recognize its own demands. We’re not broken. Today’s social demands are unsustainable.