Halloween is a time of masks, and these masks are meant to scare people. They are meant to force us to acknowledge the mystery and terror of the unknown, and people wearing them are celebrated and have sweets and chocolates as rewards.
My mask is the exact opposite. I wear my mask to reassure people, to make people comfortable within their acceptable parameters, and to keep myself safe. I wear my mask to hide the unknown, so it doesn’t upset people. I wear my mask to hide being autistic.
And my reward? Well, I don’t get bullied so much. People don’t ostracise me as much as I know they would if I removed the mask. Oh, and I also get severe anxiety, depression and a sense that I have no identity behind the mask anymore, after so many years.
Most autistic people mask. We have to, and generally speaking it is mostly an automatic self-defence mechanism that we develop in early life. It is not a manipulative tool, whereby we act ‘normal’ in order to ensnare people and force them to spend time with us. It is a means of survival, of avoiding negative attention and staying safe in a world that is extraordinarily hostile to any form of difference – especially if that difference is not understood.
For what lies behind the mask isn’t grotesque, or physically disgusting, or foul – what lies behind is simply a different way of experiencing the world (primarily sensory, attention and social) that is extremely poorly understood. Most typical autistic behaviours, from stimming to info-dumping, are just mysteries to the majority of people, who respond the way humans always do when confronted with something we don’t understand: fear.
So we wear our masks this Halloween, like every other day of the year, to not frighten people but to calm them and to keep ourselves safe and secure. Our life’s battery and mental health are drained daily by this masquerade, exhausting as it is, and we suffer as a result. And that is why I’m here, and countless other autistic writers and advocates. My books exist to try to remove this stigma of the unknown, to educate everyone so that perhaps, one day in the not-so-distant future, autistic people can be confident that their autistic-ness won’t be met with fear but understanding, acceptance and love.
Ghosts, vampires and ghouls will always be the unknown, and always be frightening. Autism doesn’t have to be.