Because I am autistic but did not know that until I was 30, I had to learn to compensate.1 I had learned as a child and teenager how to suppress symptoms and grit my teeth through problems and build workarounds so that I could act mostly neurotypical; moreover, I had learned all of this without knowing that that is what I was learning. Either this process was wholly unconscious or else I attributed it to the regular learning curve of a somewhat awkward teenager from a rural elementary school suddenly cast into a townie high school. But where I learned these social skills passably well in high school, I learned them very well in customer service jobs. I am now very good at the point-of-sale and tour guide personality performance; I have had coworkers call me charming and employers rely on me for impressing visiting dignitaries. It is a performance, though, that I turn on and off. I think many people in customer service do this. I suspect far fewer people in customer service also use their “customer service face,” as I call it, in almost all social encounters. I do.
I have seen other late-diagnosis autistic people on Twitter call these compensations a mask, and that is a good description. Lately I noticed that two of my previous posts here on Accidental Shelf-Browsing have a mask metaphor in so central a place that I used a photograph of a mask as one of its images: the first pertains, by way of William Blake, to the way that all self-expression creates an imperfect persona that is not identical to who we are, while the second pertains to my personal sense of inadequacy and the brazen colossus within which I find myself trapped. Is this preoccupation with masks a consequence of the fact that, in order to function in neurotypical society, I have had to live under one for my entire life? Of course, I still stand by the claim that all self-expression creates a “self” distinct from the person who created it, that for each Borges there is another Borges. But it is possible that most people take their masks off from time to time whereas, since I only recently learned that I wore a mask at all, I haven’t the slightest idea how.