If you put an infant’s head in a vice or similar apparatus, you can alter the shape of their skull. It has to do with cranial plates not fully fusing together for the first year of a person’s life. Once the plates have fused, the subjects head remains in the altered state permanently.
Many civilizations in ancient as well as more recent time have engaged in this irreversible practice.
You probably could have guessed that I did not undergo this procedure. However, as a “high functioning” autistic adult I have experienced something like it. Not physically, but nearly as irreversible and also the result of unusual pressures placed on me from a young age.
I’m talking about masking.
For autistic people, masking, (also sometimes referred to as camouflaging), is the process by which they hide, lessen or divert their natural tendencies and traits, and adopt others less natural to them, in order to better meld into neurotypical society. Some even attempt to appear neurotypical themselves as needed.
There are those on the Spectrum that do not mask, either by choice, or because they are not able to differentiate their behavior from the social expectations of their environment.
Yet masking is not always intentional. When it takes place it’s almost unconscious. That is to say, so deeply buried are the person’s intrinsic traits and comforts that they themselves may no longer realize they are concealing something about themselves.
In many such cases, the masking came about as a result of unconscious conditioning from their society, rather than commands from their parents. Such folks retreat slowly, subtly away from one aspect of their personality, then another and another as a response to mental pain and frustration imposed upon them because of their obvious differences with peers.
Like binding the skull of an infant, the pressures are applied little by little, day by day earlier in life, leading to decisions and changes the person may not even be aware of. By the time they reach adulthood, much like bound skulls, the deformity is permanent or nearly so.
Unlike the shape of such an infant’s skull, however, the person with ASD bound to such a mask often remains exhausted by the change. That is because though unconscious, the mask nonetheless forces its subject into unnatural shapes and behaviors. That energy to conform has to come from somewhere, even when the mask-wearer doesn’t know it’s happening.
I was diagnosed late in life — in my 30’s. Though I knew long before that that much was different about me, I didn’t know it was Autism. So yes, I was able to adjust my personality in certain ways, either by choice or in defensive response to always being hurt. Yet I never knew that what I sought to change was actually an organic part of who I am. As a result, I began, (and sometimes still do) set aside the true aspects of myself automatically, without conscious thought, in order to follow the persona the mask requires, and to get through a day.
So deep are the changes after all of this time, that I am only just becoming aware of some of the things I have done over the years to not stand out in a bad way. Other exhausting changes may take years to uncover and set aside. And yes, some will probably remain forever unknown to my conscious mind, or irreversibly bound, fused into who I am to the outside world.
By and large, I am more authentic to myself in this point in history than at any other point. The diagnosis and the mere passage of time allow for that. Yet even now that I am open and honest about my having ASD, I pass through events that drain me of peace and energy. I recognize after the fact, or when I sit alone merely trying to plan my day or relax at the end of one that there is an underlying fatigue to my being. Like a fine-tuned machine that has never been oiled, the very turning of the gears grinds at the works in such a manner as to threaten seizing up, or overheating of the entire system.
I may never know all of the overworked gears. But at least now I can remember to pause, take stoke, oil what I can, replace what no longer works and do so for myself, and not the world.
Or the mask.