Monday, June 25, 2018

Why I Believe PDA Social Mimicry and Masking are Hardwired

I have come to suspect that PDA social mimicry and masking, unlike the mimicry and masking carried out by non-PDA autistics, is hardwired.  My reasons for suspecting this are fourfold:

1) Self-reflection
2) Speaking with non-PDA autistic maskers
3) Speaking with PDAer maskers
4) That my PDAer daughter has masked since toddlerhood

Social mimicry is copying what you think is the right behaviour to fit in and get along with people.

Masking is hiding your true feelings by acting as if you feel something else, often happy and relaxed.  Social mimicry can, therefore, be thought of as the ingredients from which masks are made.

Non-PDA autistics have surprised me by talking about having learned to mask as a bullied child and stopped bothering to do so.  However, PDAers I’ve spoken to have tended to describe their mimicry and masking as hardwired.

A study I carried out early in 2018 suggests female non-PDA autistics are far more likely to feel they have learned to socially mimic than female PDAers, who tended to see their mimicry as hardwired (see graph below).

PDA masking for me is not about being afraid to show our true selves, but about not actually being capable of communicating mask-free. Ever.

In telling parents of PDA children that I suspect our masking is all-prevalent, they have tended to accept this, whilst assuming their children do not mask with them.  However, I think we PDAers mask with EVERYONE, including parents and other loved ones.  Our little PDAer daughter, for example, has fiercely denied being hurt from the moment she could form enough words to do so. We’ve never had the attitude that her being hurt is wrong, but she has been inwardly driven to mask her pain anyway.

This is not a slight on our loved ones.  It’s just the way we’re wired.

I think masking with close family is so eased-through-practice that it appears not to exist.  However, it is still there.  With those closest to us, we will have learned that we can communicate our meltdowns *through* our masks without being rejected, but this does not mean our masks actually drop during meltdown. It's like living under impermeable plastic wrap: we can move around inside it, but can never break through.

The fact that our masking has been lifelong and automatic, means we frequently don't even notice we are doing it ourselves.  Masking to family is like a second skin we are so familiar with we don’t notice it’s there.  We are more likely to notice our masking in unpracticed situations with unfamiliar people for whom we must subconsciously create a new mask (an interface of tone, gestures, expression, conversation style, etc) to fit this precise individual.

I think this is why it so hard for me to form new relationships.  I can’t just connect with someone no matter how much I want to.  I need to first create a mask just for them.

Sociable by nature, as a younger adult I was frustrated that I couldn’t relax and talk to people one on one without a current close friend (someone I’d developed a comprehensive mask with).  I’d visit people I’d got on well with in the company of a close friend, but be stressed and word-less visiting these same people alone.  I had no idea why this was.  Such experiences were traumatic for me and frustrating too because I wanted to be independent and be able to just breeze happily around as a confident social butterfly.

At other times, people I’ve attempted to hang out with have bored me stupid. 

Losing close friends has always been a major blow to me.  I can’t, as I have said, just form new friendships. 

As a younger adult, I resorted to heavy drinking and drugs in order to break down my unwanted wall of discomfort and speechlessness. This was effective in that intoxication left me uncaring and unable to judge if my mask was appropriate.  The downside was that I made a social idiot of myself, left myself extremely vulnerable and played havoc with my own health.

These days, I am happy leading a quiet life with my partner of nine years and our masking PDAer daughter. 


  1. interesting thoughts to mull over. as a self-diagnosed PDAer with a diagnosed 6 year old PDA son, this makes some sense to me.. i have often felt like i struggle to be an authentic 'me', and that my personality seems so varied, and i sometimes 'absorb' certain close friends characters when i've spent time with them...

  2. A really interesting perspective. Thank you.