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Confessions of a mask

"Masks! Masks! Let us blind Eros,

For who could bear his radiand face?"

Rainer Maria Rilke


We are just now closing in on the Christmas season and already there is talk of carnival, I heard one of these days. The venting immediately reminded me of the issue of social masking or camouflage in autism and even phda.


But before I talk about social masking in autism, I'd like to think a bit about the use of masking itself, how it came about and how it has been used over time. And how the concept of masking came to be used in situations or by people belonging to minority groups, for example.


Masks are objects that cover the face for various reasons. Although we know of masks that cover the entire body. Take for example the caretakers from Podence! They are used for protection, disguise, entertainment or ritual practices and are made of various materials, depending on the use. The first use of masks was for rituals and ceremonies, and the oldest mask found is from 7000 BC.


For example, in Africa, ritual masks are used in many different ways. In West Africa, they are used in ceremonies whose purpose is to communicate with ancestral spirits. In addition to human faces, many African masks are made with the shapes of animals. Some African tribes believe that they make it possible to communicate with the spirits of animals of the savannahs and forests. For example, one of the most common masks is an antelope. An antelope is believed to have thought of people farming or to symbolise a farmer. Some tribes make masks as symbols of different attributes. The mask with closed eyes symbolises tranquility while the protruding forehead symbolises wisdom. War masks are made to frighten the enemy with large eyes, painted colours and anger from the carved face.


The tribes of North America vary widely, so their masks differ from each other in many ways. Coastal groups in the Pacific Northwest have very skilled woodworkers who make complex masks made of wood, leather, bone and feathers, with moving parts and great beauty. They are used in shamanic rituals that represent the unity between men, their ancestors and the animals that men hunt. They are also used to exorcise evil spirits from the sick.


Masks are also used for protection. For example, welding masks that protect the welder's eyes and face; gas mask that protects from dangerous gases; protective masks on helmets, from gladiators to modern police. There are also medical masks for oxygen supply, surgical masks that protect doctors and patients from infecting each other, as well as many more.


And with this protection goal in mind, and more specifically surgical masks. Since March 2020, and other countries before that, Portugal has had to wear mandatory masks in a multitude of places. And even after almost three years we still use them in some contexts. And much has been written and considered about the fact of their use and what it would represent for each one of us. The surgical masks themselves date back much further. For example, if we look at the photo that accompanies this text we can see a representation of Doctor Schanel, a plague doctor in Rome in the 17th century.


But thinking about other aspects related to the need for protection. Masks have also been used to protect people from fear or anxiety about certain aspects of themselves, real or perceived.


But what is certain is that on a day-to-day basis, any one of us is called upon to play a diverse set of social roles for which we need to wear different masks. Masks that may reveal but also hide something. Metaphorically speaking, the face becomes the mask. And if we think about it, it's nothing that any one of us hasn't already done by making a smile, usually called a yellow smile, when something doesn't please us. Basically, we'll be doing that so that the other person doesn't notice our displeasure, as well as to feel integrated in the situation.


But back to the issue of social masking, whether in autism, but also generally in mental health. Why this need and intention? Why want to hide your person or part of it from others and with the intention of feeling socially integrated? I think these are two questions that make us think, first of all about the stigma towards mental health, but also about the desire to belong to the group. But in the case of autistic people, doesn't this last part - the desire to belong to the group - seem to be a bit antagonistic? Certainly not! However, the stereotypes around what autism is lead to build this social representation that in autism there seems to be no place for the desire to belong to a group.


The title of this text - Confessions of a mask (1949) by Yukio Mishima portrays precisely this desire to belong to a society that repressed him and felt he could not be himself.


Social camouflage tells us so much more about people who in suffering still try to integrate socially, at great physical and emotional cost. But it also gives us a lot of information about society, about that majority group that still does not make enough effort for the acceptance and celebration of difference. Just like in Ancient Greece, or in Africa or North America, when during some spectacle or ritual they used masks. These moments have always translated into a narrative of the sorcerer, of those who requested or provided the ritual, but also of all those who watched and participated.


And as such, we know that the autistic people who most use social masking are precisely those who have higher rates of psychological suffering. But we also know that the other part of the audience, that majority group, also suffers from this or similar discomfort.



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