“The Root of Autistic Masking”

mask.jpg “But we don’t see it in school” (Mum must be lying), “S/he’s fine here, no trouble.” (Mum is attention-seeking, maybe she has FII), “Really? I can’t imagine him/her behaving like that, s/he’s never done that here.” (Mum must have poor parenting skills/there are issues at home).

So many autism parents have encountered this scenario.  Why?  Really – why, why, why, why – when there is much basic autism information available free online from reliable sources, which states that masking in high-functioning autistic children is commonplace?

Occam’s Razor says that the simplest answer is usually the correct one.  So, then I ask professionals, what is more likely – that most parents are devious liars with issues, that have nothing better to do than create work for themselves by inventing their child’s difficulties just for the hell of it?  Or that their child really is very anxious, struggling in the school environment and is holding it in whilst there and releasing it in an explosion at home?

Why do autistics mask?  Anxiety and/or inhibition.  Inhibition because they realised or sensed from early on, that they were different and struggled in interactions.  They are likely to have been excluded, ridiculed or bullied for being different.  They pressure themselves to fit in, because all anyone wants is acceptance.  They may also have developed a phobia about being told-off by teachers, or being unpopular with peers.

You know what’s sad about this situation (aside from children not being given either the diagnosis or help that they need that is)?  Is that autistics cannot be themselves.  That autistics have to put on an act, adopt a persona, to be considered acceptable to society.  That they have to live in fear of being judged for their differences.  Misjudged.  That to not be negatively targeted, they have to mimic others and suppress their natural traits.  And it is exhausting to mask.

Why would professionals, teachers and CAMHS clinicians, paediatricians, not realise these most basic facts (and they are supposed to be the ones experienced in children’s behaviours)?  That standing out and drawing negative consequences or reactions, is more than enough to make someone keep a lid on it until they feel safe to let it out?  That they may be in such abject fear and anxiety of the situation they are in, such as school, that they are almost frozen in fear for the duration.  To exist in that state for a whole school day, why is it a surprise that by the time they return home to their family, they are unable to do anything but display challenging behaviours to release it?

Obviously it’s not as simple as these professionals not understanding or realising.  It’s also highly convenient to blame parents, if blaming parents saves money.  Many professionals bask in the glory of their position and the power it gives them.  Some relish misusing that power to become playground bullies all over again, but this time it’s sanctioned by policies and procedures that are conveniently designed to be misused.  Professional bias goes a long way, it’s like a Mexican wave, one starts with a particular viewpoint and the others all willingly join in, oblivious to other possibilities because agreeing is an easy ride and also lets them off the hook if they have been responsible in any way for exacerbating the child’s difficulties (whether by accident or design).

The vast majority of parents see their child in difficulty and want to help them.  Behaviour is telling you something and autistics often have trouble speaking up away from their family.  So they may tell their parents how they feel but be unable to in school.  It’s normal for a parent to want to resolve their child’s difficulties.  Imagine how it is to approach the very people you are supposed to have faith in, only to be dismissed and made to feel it’s your own fault.  Imagine how it is to see your child being tortured every day and being like the last Spartan at Thermopylae against a Persian army, trying to save them.

I do also like to make a particular point on this topic when I can: when professionals say that a child being disruptive in school, must be having issues at home, then the reverse has to be true by their own logic.  That a child being challenging at home, must be having problems at school.  They cannot say that for both scenarios, the problems lie at home!

Professionals simply have to do some basic research such as by reading the above articles and learn to be accepting of what parents are telling them.  Teachers are rarely autism experts and do not have the qualifications to comment on whether a child could not be autistic based on them being passive in school.  If parents can learn this stuff, then you’d expect professionals who are in the job of being around children all day, to do so.  The more parents talk about this issue, hopefully more awareness of masking will be raised.

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Lost in Translation…Tales of The Language and Expression of Autism as an Alien Concept

ImageThe Rorschach inkblot test is a great illustrator of the point here.  A random inkblot can be interpreted in different ways by different people, and based on what they see, a psychologist or psychiatrist can use that information towards diagnosing psychopathology.

So there are two points – the first is, that the same thing can be interpreted in different ways by different people, and the second, is that depending on a person’s life experience, training (or lack thereof), environment or upbringing and all sorts of other reasons, they can have a bias to see things a particular way.  Hence the making of assumptions, often incorrect in the case of the autistic people they are assuming about.

I have my own experiences both as an adult with Asperger’s and as a parent of autistic children, of miscommunication and misunderstanding with neurotypical people.  And it cuts both ways.

I feel sure that many parents of autistic children out there, can give testimony to their child saying, (or in the throes of anxiety or meltdown) screaming out, things that would be so likely to be misinterpreted by others, particularly others who don’t know the context or the child’s condition.  Only today, I also read of a worried mother whose autistic child had gone into school and made false accusations against her father of getting her up in the middle of the night to “beat her up” and then laughingly told the parents later on “I lied to see if you get taken away” and the mother is heartbroken.  Clearly the issues here in this particular child, and no doubt others, are low emotional maturity/awareness, low empathy, normal-high intellect and communication deficits – which can be a perfect storm for things getting either taken the wrong way or the child not realising the impact of their words or actions because of autism.  My own younger child (aged 9) has said awful things to me, in a calm and cool voice, because I won a game of snakes and ladders against her.  Later on, she will say she didn’t mean it, but that she was angry.  You would never have known she was angry by the way she said it and the delay after the game finished, before she said it.  It was meant to hurt me, because she was angry, but she had also clearly ruminated about losing the game and thought about what she could say to hurt me.

Once, we undertook a family outing to a play centre, my youngest child got stressed inside the soft play area and had a meltdown, I tried my best to calm her down but she couldn’t stop (it’s a runaway train a lot of the time) and in the end I had to take her by the hand and outside to the car.  All the toddlers in the centre were staring open-mouthed, at this older child screaming, like one of them having a tantrum – times ten.  Whilst taking her across the car park, she was screaming “Help!  You’re taking me away!” and I could see people looking wondering whether I was abducting someone else’s child.

There have been many times the children have both yelled things out at home which I cringe at, because I am acutely aware that to a neighbour through the walls, the meaning will sound totally other than what it actually is.  And bearing in mind that many autistic children are hypersensitive and hyper-reactive to small things, the frequency of screams and tears and yelling of misconstruable things, can be a big concern for a family.

Because autistic children often say things in a factual way, without explaining further, this is another cause for other people to misunderstand and jump to conclusions without looking deeper or enquiring further.  Being misunderstood can have all sorts of consequences, the child may not have the insight to realise they are being misunderstood, or what the implications are, and the parents may be the only people who really know the child and their unique way of expressing themselves and what they actually mean.  You cannot raise a child from a baby without picking up what they mean in the way they express themselves, parents of NT children “learn” their children, but parents of autistic children take this to a whole other level.  You know how a mum is often the only person to understand the particular babble of their toddler, which everyone else finds unintelligible, or how the spouse of a motor neurone disease sufferer will know by a twitch or eye movement exactly what they mean?  That times a hundred, and if the parent is on the spectrum themselves, perhaps that times a thousand.

Then there is the issue of atypical presentation of emotions.  Many parents will know of the ‘different behaviour between school and home‘ scenario – sadly even clinicians aren’t fully aware of this and many other professionals cannot grasp it and refuse to accept it is even possible.  This can lead to schools denying a child is having difficulties coping and professionals in turn, accusing parents of either exaggerating or even making up their child’s difficulties.  This can of course have the potentially devastating effect of the child not receiving the support they need, which in turn affects the child’s mental health and services refusing to accept the problem can be a big strain on a family.  I still shudder when I recall recently reading in the comments below a media article on bullying (something many ASC children suffer from) a mother describe how CAMHS’ failure to support her bullied autistic child, led to their suicide.  Rates of bullying of autistic children can be as high as 63% (possibly higher as those are only the reported cases).  If a child is bullied and the school doesn’t address the problem or accept that it even exists, because the child reports it with flat affect so it is not taken seriously, then this shows professionals are not understanding the unique nature of autistic traits and difficulties.

Autistic children may also display “inappropriate” emotions which an uneducated person would not understand.  For instance, laughing whilst feeling distressed, or want to extricate themselves from a situation or environment.  My husband does not see, that if he teases the children and they are laughing, that this might hide the fact that they are not enjoying it – I can see that they might be close to tears and the laughter disguises how they are really feeling.  Or when he has taken them out, to him they can appear to be fine and enjoying the outing, but the moment they return home either one of them (and sometimes both) can throw themselves at me loudly complaining and almost crying about how they didn’t enjoy it.  And it’s complicated by alexithymia causing difficulty understanding and expressing their emotions.  So when a parent, often the mother, can see what is happening with their child, they can have immense difficulty getting professionals and services to recognise it.  They can be accused of being neurotic, anxious, over-protective, controlling and even more serious things, when they try to seek help for their child and explain the difficulties.  Often also, an autistic child will release their distress and feelings with the person and in the place, they feel safest to do so – at home with the mother.  They are masking it in front of others and this is why the training and awareness of services and professionals is essential, as is professionals treating parents with respect and listening to them.

Life is hard enough with autism, or raising autistic children, we don’t need misjudging been thrown on top of that.

I will finish by requoting something I quoted in one of my other posts:

http://www.larry-arnold.net/Autonomy/index.php/autonomy/article/view/9/21

“They judge me on the bit they can see and what they are able to see sadly will itself be limited by their own conditioning…” (Lyte)