Masking: Ace the Interview, Fail the Job

I was recently relieved of my day job, and in the course of deciding on my next path, I’ve been looking into what assistance might be available to me.  At one point in this search, I was dealing with a rather pretentious young man in a professional setting; discussing my work history and what duties I was suited for (mostly solitary, nothing public-facing) versus the jobs I’d held most of my life (almost all public-facing, in places where I was expected to be social).   

I had to explain why being autistic causes me to have issues in work environments. 

“I don’t get along in places where they expect a lot of interaction or team-oriented stuff, because I can’t do the small talk and social stuff,” I told him.   

He stared at me a moment as though he thought I was lying, and then said “I would never have guessed.”   

I realized I was looking at his eyes as he said that.  Not making eye contact per se, but looking at his eyes to read them, to see what he was thinking.  Maybe an NT wouldn’t understand the difference, but I’m betting some of my fellow Aspies/autistics would. 

It took about 15 minutes for all the information I got in that moment to percolate through my brain, so that as I was driving home from this encounter, I understood what had happened. 

That smug young man saw me looking at his eyes and thought there was no way I could be autistic because *those people* can’t make eye contact.  He also knew that I’d been conversing with him for about half an hour in a fairly natural way, and he assumed that autism and intelligent conversation were mutually exclusive. 

“Don’t they know we can fake it for a little while when we have to???” I thought.   

It seemed the obvious assumption to me, but I suddenly realized, really for the first time in my life, that other people don’t fake their way through social encounters, so it never occurs to them that I might be faking it.  They assume I do it just as easily as they do.

So yes, in that meeting with that priggish young man, I was masking HARD.  I always do when I have to deal with people in a professional setting.  I pin the smile on my face and go through the motions just long enough to convince them that I’m a “normal person” – to get the NT version of “one of us, one of us”.  And as I began to understand all that had happened in that moment, it dawned on me why I’ve always had issues in jobs and employers have always been upset with my lack of sociability. 

I can fake it long enough to get through an interview.  I can pass for “normal” in short bursts, usually up to an hour or two before I collapse. I hold it together long enough to convince them, and then I fall apart on the drive home.  But if I get the job, I can’t keep that up.  There is just no way I can be ON all day, every day.   

If you work with me day in, day out, you’ll learn real quick that I don’t say “good morning” because I hate mornings and I’m not really functional until at least 10am.  You‘ll also learn not to come to my desk to talk to me, because I will be absorbed in whatever I’m doing and I won’t hide the fact that you are an unwelcome interruption.   

Unfortunately, though, pretty much every job I’ve ever held was public facing, and most of them involved answering phones. (I hate phones; I didn’t even order pizza until I could do it online.)  Having to answer phones and deal with the public in person takes every last bit of coping reserves I have, and frequently overwhelms me, so I have nothing left to use for socializing with my coworkers.  I can’t manage “good morning”, “have a good night”, or even remembering to hike my mouth into a smile on command.   

At the job I just left, which I got by “passing” during the interview, I was unofficially told that I was well-respected because I was the best at my job, but I was not well-liked because I didn’t smile and I didn’t make a point to say hello to people every day, and that was why I wasn’t promoted even though I deserved it.  I wanted to scream when I heard that. 

But what is there to do?  NT’s are obsessively social, and they can’t remove that from any aspect of their lives.  So they expect a work environment to be the same way.   

I know that every job I ever got by “passing” in the interview made me completely miserable every single day I was there.  But if I disclose my diagnosis beforehand, I risk not getting hired, and if I disclose after being hired, I risk being fired (I live in an “at will employment” state, so they can make up any reason and the burden would be on me to prove it was because of my autism).  What options are there for those of us who simply can’t socialize to the expected degree?

In certain circumstances, I think that masking is a decent coping mechanism.  It gives us a way to get through common things like a doctor visit, talking to a landlord, getting help from a store employee, and other little everyday interactions that we have to deal with as adults.  Personally, I think it’s good for me to be able to get through those encounters without those people being distracted by my autistic behaviors and perhaps treating me as unintelligent or less than human because of that.   

 But I’ve been masking my whole life, with varying degrees of success, and it’s too exhausting.  Not to mention, it’s unfair.  None of us should have to pretend to be something or someone we’re not just to get through a day of work.   For the moment, I think my best hope is to move into some kind of remote work where there is no requirement to socialize with coworkers.   

Have you had a similar experience when you’ve masked just a little too well?  Any tips or tricks for surviving in a work environment?  Have you gotten a job you enjoy by being upfront about your diagnosis? 

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  1. Emi

    February 21, 2019 at 3:17 pm

    I stumbled upon your blog from the EBA boot camp facebook group, and I just wanted to tell you that you’re a great writer! I guess I’m an “NT” and I learned so much about autism reading your most recent posts, thank you for sharing what life is like for you. Even though I’m an NT, I mask sometimes in social situations too, I think that’s one thing most humans have in common. It’s hard to be ourselves around others all the time. I don’t mean to simplify things by the way, I know that it’s more difficult for you, I just wanted to share that you’re not alone and all of us can relate to each other, in some way or another. Anyway, great job on your blog!

    1. gracek

      February 21, 2019 at 7:19 pm

      Thanks for the encouragement! I think introverts, in particular, have a lot in common with people on the spectrum (but you can have autistic extroverts, too), in that we all spend a lot of energy trying to be who/what we think we’re supposed to be. Everybody wants to fit in, that’s definitely universal, and lots of people put on a “social personality” sometimes. Thanks again, hope you’re doing great!

      1. Anjea Ehrle Ray

        February 11, 2021 at 9:35 am

        K is an autistic extrovert and I’m a ND/non-autistic introvert. I definitely mask in certain social situations – large groups where I don’t know anyone, groups where I know everyone but don’t have the same social standing/popularlity as the others, or when I’m with people who clearly have different values than my own, which is especially hard. It’s frustrating in that I *know* what is expected but it feels so icky to “play that game,” which doesn’t help with fitting in to another group. I assume that icky feeling is similar for autistics, only more so?

        I know a lot of autistic people are drawn to fields like computer science and engineering because their brilliance is appreciated and people accept that they may have less-brilliant social skills. I think of it like a pie chart – your brain is wired for certain things and only has enough resources for those things. Some people have a huge chunk for social; others have a huge chunk for analytical thinking; others for abstraction and visual-spatial. It’s finding the right fit between strengths and an environment that can appreciate the strengths and accept the weakness as neccessary “baggage.” I know there’s something out there for you that would be PERFECT but we just gotta figure out what that is . 🙂

        1. Grace

          February 11, 2021 at 9:42 am

          Now that I know what I’m doing, yes, it feels kind of yucky to put on the face at work. Just in public, with doctors, retail workers, etc, it’s not so bad, it’s just what I have to do to get through the situation. Drama classes helped a lot – learning to create a “character” to be my public face made it easier.
          Personally, I’d like to write for a living, but that’s not exactly reliable income without some very strict deadlines.

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