I’m incensed! Again! To be clear, when a child is displaying distress before and / or after school because their needs are inadequately understood and supported during school hours, it is not OK. Parents are told “We can’t help because we don’t see the problem in school”. They don’t get it do they? That is the problem! Oh and they can help…. If they choose to.
I don’t have detailed knowledge of the science nor the psychology behind ‘masking’ and ‘blending in’ but there are credible academics who do – https://blogs.shu.ac.uk/autism/2014/11/18/good-behaviour-at-school-not-so-good-at-home/ . I can, however, try to make sense of it somewhat, so that those dealing with this uneducated and potentially harmful approach by professionals can advocate more strongly for their children than I was able to for Peter.
And make no mistake. This uneducated ‘he is fine in school’ approach is harmful.
To me, masking and blending in are two different things. My son did both and, like for many others, the harm was considerable.
I think ‘blending in’ came first. This little bright boy, whom few suspected had difficulties understanding the social world, looked out around him in Reception class, confused by what was going on, wanted more than anything to fit in, to be just like everyone else. He copied their play, ran around next to them, noticed when to laugh and even used his own different perspectives to make others laugh. It was like he was constantly working in a second language, his mind busily interpreting ‘neurotypical’ into ‘Aspie’ and vice versa. He blended in well and made it easy for those who wanted to report assumptions about superficial behaviours that described “fine in school” to do just that. (See here for more about assumptions)
‘Masking’ on the other hand, to me, is more direct. Having established a persona that blends in effectively I think Peter felt he needed to maintain that. Only now he didn’t only have to behave, play and learn in a way that didn’t attract attention; that made him look like others. He had to hide feelings that were rising up inside him. He started to feel anxious and he wanted to hide that at all costs. He wanted to look like all the other little boys. With hindsight I can see that he embarked on the development of strategies to hide his anxiety at an early age. To me this is masking.
But what was causing a rise in anxiety? Don’t get me wrong the anxiety was always there, especially around transitions, sensory issues and ‘demands’. The thing is, the demands on him were naturally increasing. The opportunities for movement in the day were reduced as there is more desk based work and his reading and spelling started to become more tricky (dyslexia). The social world was getting a little more complex each month, as other children developed emotionally and socially, and so the gap between him and them widened. He had to work harder to understand and translate. He was described as, ‘responsible’, ‘grown up’ and of course the old chestnut ‘fine in school’. Labels that added pressure to conform and of-course reinforced the self imposed expectation to develop a persona that is ‘all grown up and sensible’, as opposed to expose the worried and confused little boy that he often was during the school day. This and no doubt other factors led to an increase in anxiety that he felt the need to mask so that he could blend in.
So he learned to mask his anxiety and blend in. Because that is what he was taught by the adults in school was expected of him – and this to me was a critical point. The beginning of a terrible vicious circle with devastating effects.
With the benefit of hindsight I can see that with the very early announcement by his Head Teacher that “HE IS NORMAL”, (See Survivor Guilt?) school staff became determined to prove themselves right and CAMHS staff wrong. Peter sensed that he could not show his anxieties safely at school. No-one had the understanding of a social communication disability in a child with a good vocabulary, nor the impact of delayed emotional skills in a child that presented as mature and responsible. Repeated requests for Peter to develop a strong relationship with a trusted adult at school were denied and it became impossible for him to show his vulnerabilities there. The self imposed pressure to ‘mask’ and ‘blend in’ increased. This enabled to school staff to ‘prove’ to themselves they were right (see – he is fine in school) and the vicious cycle continued.
Peter needed teachers that were curious, open minded and reflective. Teachers that didn’t make assumptions and who had a good understanding of the knowledge and skills of the CAMHS team and OT and a genuine willingness to work in a truly multi agency way. When you think about it, it would have cost next to nothing.
To be clear: distress experienced by children before and after school, caused by the inadequate support in school, is not OK. Support for sensory needs, anxiety, social communication skills and delayed emotional development IS needed if barriers to learning are to be reduced for this cohort of children. All children with an SEN need a plan of support in school that properly reflects all their barriers to learning and how these can be supported to achieve their potential and not, incidentally, someone else’s idea of a OK or ‘normal range’.
Posted by Peter and Lily’s mum.
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