"Well she's definitely not anxious at school." -Autism and Masking in the classroom.
Updated: Feb 25
“She’s very attention seeking” was a common line I heard as the parent of a young, autistic daughter in a mainstream school setting.
Only problem was, I had no idea she was autistic.
She was a gifted learner, no real academic challenges during primary school. In fact, we often had to ask for her work to be extended on as she was regularly bored due to the curriculum not meeting her learning capacity.
A keen school attender, surrounded by friends, there didn’t appear to be any problems.
During her primary years, she was even nominated for a literary award hosted by our local library, and represented her school at the regional spelling bee finals.
It wasn’t until secondary school that things started to change.
The recess calls began, asking me to collect her due to panic and anxiety attacks.
Less and less school work was completed and meeting with her educators, head of house, wellbeing officer, school counsellor and Principal?
Not even kidding.
The ‘support’ was non existent.
She was pushed and pushed to study harder and harder and as time went on, I watched powerlessly as she became more anxious at home, more resistant to school work and more and more disconnected from us.
“She’s not anxious at school, at all” was the response I got.
I sought help outside the school, to be told that I was the problem.
That I, was highly anxious, causing her anxiety.
I was told I should ease up.
All in one session, the first session, the only session.
And that was the problem.
I had eased up. In fact, I had tried everything.
I’d tried getting tougher, fighting back harder, taking away privileges, enforcing punishments.
Then I tried easing up, being more understanding, listening more and talking less.
I did parenting courses, read books, went to professionals and as much as I tried, she wasn’t interested in connecting with me at all.
It was single handedly the most isolating and difficult time of our lives.
And nobody would believe me.
Because the way in which she appeared to the outside world was completely different to who we knew her to be at home.
This was the first, but not the last experience our family had of being judged, dismissed, overlooked and unheard in terms of our daughters’ struggles at school.
Another of our daughters was an avid school refuser beginning in Prep.
When she finally received her autism diagnosis, I attended the quarterly PSG meeting with the diagnostic report in hand, along with information sheets on autism.
I was told “Yeah, it’ll be a cut and paste of another child’s report I guess”, with absolutely no effort to look at it.
The information papers were left on the table.
“I just don’t see it. I’ve had many students on the spectrum and she isn’t like any of them” she said.
And you know what?
I totally understood it.
It hurt me as a Mother, but from an educator’s perspective, I just got it.
I’d been an educator, told frequently that my students had particular diagnoses, yet whatever the reports or paperwork portrayed in terms of behaviour and challenges, I just didn’t see a lot of it, sometimes ANY of it, in my classroom.
I understood what it was to not understand autism.
And now, here I was on the other side.
The support we applied for fell through, time and time again, due to the fact that many autistic children MASK in classrooms.
Do you know what masking is?
I had no idea.
As an educator, with all my professional development on timers, routines, simple instructions..
And therein lies the problem.
All we’ve focused on for the longest time as educators, is the practical implementation of classroom strategies.
But, we’ve completely missed our true understanding of the identity and culture of autistic people.
And because we’ve been looking at autism as a medical diagnosis, we’ve missed the humanness; the person, we’ve not known that autism is a way of being.
As a mother, I had no idea about masking.
But you know what the most surprising part of it all is?
As an autistic person myself, I didn’t know what masking is.
I didn’t know because it was my normal. I was deeply engaged in the practice.
And that’s because sometimes masking is conscious, and sometimes it isn’t.
It’s a survival technique, a way of fitting in, conforming, of not drawing attention to ourselves.
Listen, I could talk about this all day long, but what I’d really like to do is offer you access to my 48 minute online learning module:
“Autism, Masking and Pathologising (In the Classroom)”.
It covers in great depth the hows and whys of differing presentations in autistic children between the home and classroom environments, what anxiety might 'look like', the importance of regulation and how to help our children manage everyday life, and it's all from a very fresh, alternative perspective.
An autistic perspective.
It’s on offer for one week only, completely free of charge.
I use my experience as the mother of four autistic children, a P-12 educator, a childhood behavioural and family specialist and an autistic person myself to delve into all the important parts of autistic life at school and home as children that we, as a society are missing.
Simply click on the link below, enter your deets and you’ll be taken straight to the video.