Use the 7-Sep Interface Protocol to Break-up the Masking
Autistic children mask at an early age.
Jerome looked into the video camera and said, “Oh that’s what you call it — Masking? I know what that is. I remember deciding to Mask when I was four.” Jerome was matter of fact in this revelation, although it startled his wife.
Isolda looked at me in wide eyed amazement. I had just finished explaining to the couple the concept of Masking as it applies to those on the Autism Spectrum. Still wide eyed, Isolda leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees, as she turned toward her husband. “What do you mean you ‘decided to Mask?’” she asked with a demanding tone.
“Well, it was clear to me that I didn’t fit in and wouldn’t be liked at all if I didn’t mask who I was. Been doing it ever since.” Jerome was attempting to answer Isolda’s question, but that wasn’t her real question, was it?
In that one brief moment Isolda (NT) got insight into her husband Jerome’s (ASD) world. Her heart softened as she realized that Jerome had been Masking all of his life. “Could that be why we never seemed to be on the same page? — You know, all of that pretending?” Isolda thought.
Just as quickly an even bigger question came into her mind. “So, if he has been masking all of his life, who is the man I married?” Isolda was feeling a great deal of anticipation, as she turned to me and said vehemently, “What the heck!”
This was my third or fourth time meeting with Isolda and Jerome. We had already spent a lot of time discussing the “problems” that each of them thought they had — with themselves and each other. But now I wanted to switch the conversation toward better problems solving than to blame. I wanted the couple to look at a bigger picture, one that involved how a young NeuroDiverse child may have developed Masking as a coping mechanism.
There is far more to Masking than what I explained to Jerome and Isolda that day, but here is the explanation in a nutshell:
Masking was first observed in Autistic children, many of whom apparently learned and practiced certain behaviors so as to better fit in with the children around them. They either practiced engaging in certain behaviors, or oppressing others that might be socially unacceptable.
The presumption is that many on the Autism Spectrum acquire what they perceived to be pro-social behaviors through masking, or mimicking others. They also try to suppress behaviors that others disapprove of such as stimming and odd special interests.
As the autistic child grows up, they don’t stop masking. Instead, they acquire a large repertoire of behaviors that work in most social situations. In fact, they often have very complex social scripts to help them through most social situations — though not all, especially with their loved ones.
In other words, Masking is “Pretending to be Normal” to borrow the title of Liane Holliday’s book.1 But why? What purpose(s) does it serve? And is it a conscious choice, as Jerome seemed to indicate?
All children mask when they are young.
The truth is that all children mimic and mask when they are young. This is part of normal child development. Children are keen observers. And one thing children love to do is watch others, especially other children. This is how children learn to speak, and put their shoes on the right feet, and even how to read. This is how they acquire socially/morally acceptable behavior too.
But at about age 6 there is a distinct difference starting to emerge between NeuroTypical (NT) and NeuroDiverse children. We begin to see the development of empathy among NT children. Not so with NeuroDiverse children.
Empathy is the ability to “read” the other person, to speak their language, to step into their shoes, and see the world from their perspective. Mimicking no longer serves to do this. Instead, the NT child begins to adapt their words and behaviors to reflect how to connect with others in ways that bring them closer together. Emotional connection comes before copying a behavior.
On the other hand, NeuroDiverse children continue to acquire mimicked behaviors, those behaviors that they observe in others, and hope will pass for normal. Often at a tender age, the Autistic child is aware that this mimicking or Masking is not quite right, but without professional guidance they do not learn about empathy. Instead, they acquire a large catalog of well-rehearsed behaviors, or scripts.
Along with their repertoire of scripts, the NeuroDiverse child has also developed a great deal of anxiety over having failed socially. It’s painful and confusing to work so hard to imitate others, and yet still be mocked and shunned when you think you are doing it right. Unable to fit in, the older Autistic child and teen takes refuge in a solitary special interest that doesn’t involve direct social interaction.
Sometimes these special interests, such as trains, tearing apart motorcycles, or playing video games leads to an acceptable career path. If the NeuroDiverse child can distinguish themselves in some way that is acceptable to society, they don’t feel as much pain. But they still feel alone.
The Masking child turns into a Masking adult.
There’s a lot more to this process than I can explain in one short blog, but are you getting the idea how divergent the worlds of NeuroTypical and NeuroDiverse become by the time the Autistic person has been masking for 20-30 years or more?
Is it any wonder that NeuroDivergent couples and families have such complex and chaotic lives?
In fact, is it any wonder that communication fails between these two groups, time and time again?
And with failed communication, the love fails too.
Autism is defined by psychologists as a “Pervasive Developmental Disorder.” This means that the NeuroDiverse child fails early in life to grasp the empathic interactional method of communicating and relating to others. Even though they want to connect and enjoy the company of others — everywhere they go, they struggle with empathy, and thus with their relationships.
Pervasive means just that. With family, friends, teachers, neighbors, classmates, teammates, coworkers — and later with their life partners and their own children — NeuroDiverse folks fail to connect because of this Pervasive Developmental Disability.
Instead, they continue to create a NeuroDiverse reality that consists of rules that fit the mimicked behaviors they have acquired. Even though the NeuroTypicals around them do not accept the rigid rules they have established, the NeuroDiverse individual continues to operate in the blind — pushing their transactional system. . .
Until the relationship with their NeuroTypical partner or child or friend breaks down.
Use the 7-Step Interface Protocol.
It is obviously not easy to get past this breakdown, after years of misunderstandings and heartache. However, if you truly love someone, there is motivation. Both NeuorDiverse and NeuroTypical need to take a step back and recognize how this Pervasive Developmental Disorder has shaped them. Then together, with patience and kindness — just maybe you can untangle the mess.
One tool that I offer to help with this untangling is what I call the 7-Step Interface Protocol. I’ll briefly outline the steps here, but to get a good grasp of this tool, please read my book “Empathy Is More Than Words,” 2 or register for my online recorded course.3
The 7-Step Interface Protocol consists of:
- Developing the Resilience to keep rising out of the ashes until you get it right.
- Getting a proper Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, if appropriate, instead of defending against the reality of this Pervasive Developmental Disorder.
- Using the Empathy Triad to resolve all differences.4
- Be Brave. You need courage to embark on this journey.
- Take Breaks, instead of blowing up or melting down.
- If you don’t have empathy, and can’t even fathom it, it’s OK to develop polite Work-Arounds.
- Forgive yourself and the other person, all of the myriad mistakes you have made and will make. A sweet Apology can make a huge difference.
1 Liane Holliday Willey (1999). “Pretending to be Normal.” London: Jessica Kingsley Publishing.
2 Marshack, Kathy (2022). “Empathy Is More Than Words: Groundbreaking Tools for NeuroDivergent Relationships.” US~Observer Publishing.
4 The Empathy Triad is explained in more detail in the resources above.