If you knew me, you’d be able to see through the mask I wear to hide myself. It’s a visually plain mask, white and boring but handmade -melting plastic and pouring it into varying types of moulds until I found the perfect shape. Throughout the years it took me to make my mask, I was often criticised for taking too long or for having an attitude when my chosen design was challenged with an alternative I disagreed with. After years of blistered fingers and calloused skin, I finished my mask. I will confess, its completion was only a recent achievement, but it was worth the time and dedication just to hear compliments such as, “Oh! But you don’t even look like you’re wearing a mask!” because I crafted it with such precision that, unless you knew me, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish between my skin and the pale pink plastic which covers it.
I can say confidently that when I am caught in a crowd, moving between the Quad and Buchannan to arrive at my next class at one in the afternoon — neither early nor late — you won’t be able to see through my mask, not even if we end up clashing face-to-face on the stairs. That being said, I am very rarely found in such situations: shying away from loud, bustling places full of thriving people who push and shove is all part of my carefully crafted cover. It’s not that I am claustrophobic; it’s just that the conversations that float between people become unbearable noise that make my ears reverberate like a ballbearing in a pinball machine, making my toes curl so tight they cramp. It’s just that sounds layer like musical instruments played out of tune: coughing, laughing, talk-ing, footsteps stomping on the floor, reaching decibels on par with nails dragging along a chalkboard. Unless you knew me, you wouldn’t know that I want to pour molten wax into my ears to block out my environment. I instead put on my mask, stare at my feet and stand in silence.
The reason behind the success of my mask is that I have made it so it looks like your own, unmasked face. In fact, I used you as a model, watching and observing the way you acted and behaved in varying environments. I studied the way you laughed at jokes: how to distinguish between sarcasm for humour and sarcasm from someone who is irritated, how to address teachers appropriately, and how to engage in small talk. When I am not wearing my mask, these rules of society confuse me and I find myself having to revise them, like each outing into the world is a graded exam. But when my mask is fixed firmly on my face, I laugh when you laugh, even if the joke appears to me as a scrambled heap of words with no correlation.
With my mask, I have learnt how to hold a conversation about meaningless, social niceties. We can chat about the cold, if you would like? The October air and the darkening nights, the homework that is due to be handed in tomorrow, the party you are going to on Saturday with a circle of friends so grand it makes me envious, but you don’t notice the way my eyes never meet with yours; nor do you notice the way my hands fidget, picking at a hangnail or my fingers drumming against my thigh with a soft thud thud thud, repetitive. Calming. You don’t notice my energy levels draining and my sentences becoming shorter. Or my body yearning for quiet. And space… you are standing too close and I can feel your weight pressing into mine. But I smile. I laugh. I grit my teeth and play the table tennis of social interaction, waiting for you to win so I can finally walk away.
But even though I have escaped and you are no longer looking, I keep my mask glued in place. Walking down the street to class or desperately speed-walking to the safety of my room, my chin bowed to the grey pavement, I fear my true identity being seen. Sometimes, a nervous tongue-click escapes from between my lips and I blush with shame, hoping no-one heard; or, I subconsciously press my hands into my ears to block out car engines and you notice, giving me a curious, narrow-eyed glance. My heart quickens. I think I have been caught. What if you know what I am hiding? What if you have guessed the real me beneath my mask? I smile; drop my hands, readjust my mask so it sits snug over my face and I exhale as you move on.
At other times, I am boxed into a seat in the middle row of a lecture hall, a laptop on one side and an iPad on the other and I can feel the bodies of the students in the aisles behind like I am a surfer with a wave chasing my wake. The lights are glaring and bright, intensified by bouncing off the decaying white walls. Keyboards are aggressively pounded. Rummaging paper overlaps the professor explaining German modal verbs. My attention wonders. Noise hurts. I struggle to think, to make sense of what I am being taught. I want to escape, but imagine asking all those people to move. Imagine the awkward stares. How would I explain that I need to leave because I feel like I am being stung by a hoard of wasps? So, here I go again: I fasten my mask to my face. I smile. I dig my nails into the back of my hand and despite the discomfort, I endure the rest of the lecture without anyone suspecting my internal struggle.
This mask grants me access to the neurotypical world, allowing me to experience life the same way you do and without my identity being revealed. It allows me to avoid judgement, remarks and downgrading comments. It protects me from the “You’re rude!” exclamations and the “You’re like a toddler” insults.
But there is a price to pay for wearing my mask everyday. You are fooled by the smile patched onto my face and my well-rehearsed routine but, beneath the façade, my muscles spasm with lactic acid and my cheeks pale with fatigue. Only when the door to my dimmed room slams shut, do I lift off the mask.
And then I crumble.
Like a hurtling train, the day catches up with me. I am knocked to the ground with a murderous bang, where I lay on the wooden floor, my torso and head curled so my forehead presses into my knees. Now I am alone, the tears flow down my cheeks like plummeting rocks while the world around me descends into a black blur and my mouth clamps shut so my screams become trapped at the back of my throat, clogging my airways. My lungs burn for air but the sobs erupt out from my mouth so fast I can’t breathe. My mind races, a film in fast-forward, replaying the events from the day. I beat my fists against my thighs as I cringe at something I said at 9am that morning, ashamed of myself for not fitting in, for not behaving like a neurotypical. I beg for a permanent state of black, where I don’t have to think or feel or exist. Then, less than an hour later, when the tears stop gushing, I sink into a hole that I don’t have the energy to climb out of. I switch off my phone and lock my door. I crawl into bed, still dressed and I hibernate, ready to wake up tomorrow and do it all again.
But you wouldn’t know this, not even if you knew me because the truth is, I am autistic. I am neurodiverse. And I have been taught that this is a world where I don’t belong. This is a world where my brain and its thought processes are alien. Beneath my mask, I am sometimes awkward, abrupt and honest, echolalic, and occasionally childish. I get pleasure out of sparkling fairy lights or anything doused with the colour blue. I can talk for hours about a topic I find fascinating and I promise you, I will have researched it to the point that I am now an expert.
But the neurodiverse community drowns amongst a neurotypical world. We cover our true identity with these masks that we spend our childhood crafting in the hope that we can be accepted and find people who can help us fight off loneliness. In all honesty, wearing a mask is draining and it makes our lives a constant battle. But now you have read this, I hope you understand autism more. Maybe you start to look beyond the mask and get to know the person underneath: Hi, my name is Georgia…what’s your favourite colour?