Are We Encouraging Our Autistic Children to Mask?

In a previous post about Masking I explored why so many autistic children especially those with a PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidant) profile do it. As my son recovers from the trauma he suffered in his time at school and is more open with me (and I guess learning it is safe not to mask around me) he has been sharing some of the times he appeared to enjoy but actually found really difficult. To be honest this seems to be almost everything we have ever done which, although hard to hear as a parent, gives some insight about just how challenging the everyday world can be for our autistic children and how, as a parent, I may of unwittingly sent messages to that could of made my child feel it was better to mask his discomfort in certain situations.

A classic example of this was when going to the beach. We live by the sea so obviously as a parent this free resource is one I was going to make full use of. When my son was a toddler however he would not go on the beach. He was ok on the promenade or the breakers but did not want to go on the sand, A friend of mine later told me that a trip to the beach with us when my son was two left them suspecting that he could be autistic.

I persisted taking my son to the beach and encouraging him on to the sand however and eventually he would go on it. For about three or four years he played seemingly happily in the sand (although he always wore beach shoes). We went to the beach almost every day in summer and even ate our tea there. He always preferred the stretch of beach with a large area of grass behind it though, which I thought was because it had a park (parks are another case in point but more on that later) but it was actually because he could minimise his time in the sand.

Now my son no longer masks he is able to tell me he hates the feel of sand, he has always has, but learned to tolerate it because he knew I liked going to the beach. Of course if I’d listened to the messages he was giving me early on I would of realised that.

Play parks are another thing my son tried to tell me (Lomb before he was verbal) he didn’t like and another thing I persisted with. When my son was around two we began goimg to the big park in town. To start with he would refuse to go in if there was another family already in there. With some persuasion from me he eventually started to go through the gate when an other people were there, but he would never go on any of the apparatus if anyone else was on it in all the time he was a preschooler.

By the time he was school age he would go in the park and play with the other children nearby, he would even ask to go after school but often have a meltdown on the ride home. If I asked him if he wanted to go to the park at the weekend he would always choose to go to the very quiet park near us rather than either of the two in town, unless he had arranged to meet his friends, often getting out of sorts on the occasions he did go there to meet them. He tells me now that playing in close proximity to others was hard for him, he hated it, the noise, the jostling, the often rough play which felt painful to him and the confusing rules but parks were where ‘kids went’ so he would go and pretend to enjoy himself.

I don’t have all the answers to how we make it easier for our autistic children to participate in activities without getting overwhelmed or overloaded but I do know that if I had listened to the (often non verbal) messages my son was giving me early on, I would of known sooner he had an issue with them and, perhaps rather than inadvertently conditioning him to tolerate them we would of found ways together to make them painless or find alternatives or just say that was not for him, as we do now.

It sounds simple but if we want to support autistic children and adults to lift their mask we need to learn to really listen to what they are telling us, however they are telling us, we have to allow them their voice.

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