Looking Behind the Mask with Wendy Riley


Wendy: ...as a girl, I made a lot of social blunders, that really put me on the outside of like the social groups... 

Jodi: ... what would you say is different for that autistic experience versus maybe the neurotypical experience of learning about masking or how we do it differently?...

Wendy: ... as someone with dyslexia, just can't say " I have dyslexia." I don't have to read. Someone on the spectrum can't just say, "I'm on the spectrum. I don't have to socialize."...

Jodi: ... those of us who are neurotypical, we are the ones more likely to tell the little white lies regularly...

Hey everybody. Who is ready for Season 3 of the, YOUR Neurodiverse Relationship podcast? I know I am.

I'm Jodi Carlton and I'm a mixed neurotype relationship expert if you're not familiar with me already. I launched this podcast in March of 2022, a year ago, and since then we've had 10,600 downloads on podcast platforms in over 63 countries and over 6,100 views on YouTube. 

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I've got a great lineup of guests already and we're talking about things like masking, traits of neurodivergent folks, traits of neurotypical folks, what kind of things cause difficulties in our neurodiverse relationships, but also some of the wonderful things about our neurodiverse relationships. Also, this season is a video cast where you can enjoy watching on YouTube. Or you can listen to us on the podcast like you have before.  

Jodi: I am really excited about my guest today.

I have Wendy here with me and I've known her for a while now. She is actually one of my moderators in my Facebook group. If you're not familiar with the group, I really encourage you to come join. You can just search my name, Jodi Carlton on Facebook, and you should be able to find it.

We don't allow any kind of arguing in there or bashing of anybody. 

Our neurotypical partners are in there talking to our neurodivergent folks. It's just such a great group where everybody gets to learn about each other and get advice and feedback from each other about their relationships. I have several moderators who are actually neurodivergent themselves.

Wendy said that she would really like to come and talk to me about the topic of masking. So that's one of the things we're gonna talk about today, but now I'm gonna just turn it over to Wendy and say, hi, Wendy. And just introduce yourself and tell everybody a little bit about yourself, if you would.

Wendy: Sure. Thanks for having me today, Jodi. I'm really excited to talk to you. It's great to see you again. I met her when my recently diagnosed husband sent me her YouTube video. "Five signs that your male partner may be autistic, formally Asperger's," and he sent it with the comment that said, "do you relate?"

I joined the Facebook group and then we got into private coaching with Jodi and through my own journey of self-discovery, I learned that I also had some spectrum traits. I had capitalized on my special interests of social psychology and my Aspie superpower of hearing and mimicking to become a master masker.

But I live in Iowa with my family. We homeschool, ride bikes, and I read whenever I can. 

Watching people growing up as a child in school setting, especially as a girl, I made a lot of social blunders, that really put me on the outside of like the social groups and that was really hard for me during my development. I just learned to watch what everyone else is doing and do what everyone else is doing in order to be accepted by people. And then as I got older, led to asking the question, why are they doing what they're doing in this situation?

So, yeah, so that's how I got interested in it. It helps me to feel like I'm learning and understanding people a little bit better when I can read and have someone like actually lay it out, like this is how it works. Then that helps me to be like, oh yeah. Okay. I saw that. I see that in real life. 

Jodi: So in the beginning for you, when you were growing up, the masking was more of a duplication or a copy mimicking would you say?

Wendy: I think so. Especially when I got in my late teens and twenties, when I was able to branch out from like the kids that had known me since I was in elementary school and meet new groups of people, I would frequently get the comment, "Oh, Wendy's coming out of her shell."

I sat and observed enough to know like what behaviors would be acceptable in a certain group of people and what of my behaviors would be acceptable to the group of people. I had also learned to copy other behaviors that I observed they were also doing. 

Jodi: So you said, "Wendy's coming out of her shell." So when you started coming out of your shell was after you'd had that time to observe and to figure out that group or to figure out that person and then once you felt like you understood what they were all about or what was acceptable to them, that's when you would start also filling in those behaviors yourself. Is that what you're saying? 

Wendy: Yeah. Some of that, and also some of I can do this with these people, but this other thing with these other people .

Jodi: So you know what you're saying is also part of what we do as human beings.

That's a lot of what we do. When I talk about masking, and when you said you wanted to talk about masking, I was like, "Yes, I'm excited about that because you're in more than one Facebook group, I know a lot of times masking is talked about in a very negative way, especially in terms of neurodiversity.

And a lot of people really criticize the autistic community for masking. And I come along and say, "Hold on, we all do this. we all do exactly what you just said. Masking is the term that's been used in, as far as neurodiversity, I call it wearing different hats. That's one of the terms that I've used.

I've got my mom hat when I'm with my children. I've got my professional hat when I'm with my clients and on this podcast. I've got my friend hat when my best friend, Kathy, who was on the podcast in season 2, when she was over here this weekend, and we were watching Georgia Bulldog football, that looked really different than with my clients.

Of course, we did win the game. So that was, that was great. But if we're not winning, I might not look real professional to everybody. But that's a different hat than when I'm with my mother, that's a different hat and those are all different masks that we all wear. And as we're growing up, we learn when it's appropriate or what mask is appropriate to have on. 

What you learned in social psychology, what would you say is different for that autistic experience versus maybe the neurotypical experience of learning about masking or how we do it differently?

What's just your perspective on that? 

Wendy: Well, I think the amount of effort we have to put into it. When we're on the spectrum. I also have kids who are dyslexic readers and I think it's very similar to reading with dyslexia. As someone with dyslexia, just can't say "I have dyslexia."

I don't have to read. Someone on the spectrum can't just say, "I'm on the spectrum. I don't have to socialize." That's not healthy. 

Jodi: Or, "I don't have to be appropriate."

Wendy: Right. Exactly. But someone with dyslexia has to be taught the way to read in a very systematic way. Someone on spectrum has to learn the social skills that neurotypicals just absorb naturally.

They have to learn them in a much more systematic way. They have to put a lot more thought into developing a script for themselves. Oh, I'm about to meet my new neighbor. I just moved into a new neighborhood. I've had to meet so many new people in the last month.

Every time it happens, I get a little bit anxious. What am I going to say? Am I going to say the right thing? How do I approach a conversation with someone that I have no relationship with at all? What are the correct things to say to this person? 

Jodi: Yeah. Okay. So a couple of different things to what you said there.

You said that the neurotypical person naturally absorbs these things. It's part of that vicarious learning that's just naturally absorbed. Whereas the autistic individuals, the neurodiverse are needing those scripts, like you said, to be more systematically taught and pointed out to them and even rehearsed: if you don't use it, you lose it.

You were just saying you've moved into a new neighborhood. So it's a new thing to meet a new person is something you haven't done in a while. So you have to rehearse it all over again. Whereas someone who's neurotypical might just ease right into that. So that's one thing, that vicarious learning, the absorption of that information, as far as the developmental process is one difference.

Another thing that I noticed you said was the anxiety that you felt for the situation. So a lot of people have social anxiety, even neurotypical folks have social anxiety. I would say what I heard differently for you is when you pair that anxiety though with the scripting piece, because a lot of people who are neurotypical may have social anxiety, but it's not that they don't know the script.

It's the anxiety of having to go through with it. Whereas you are describing the anxiety is because you're not sure how to go through with it. Am I describing that 

Wendy: Yeah, I think that's pretty well.

Jodi: Okay. I liked your description about the dyslexia. Just this week, I had someone comment on one of my YouTube videos. I can't remember which video it was, but his comment was about his wife and her spending habits. And, he said that since she's discovered that she's autistic, she's using it as an excuse and yeah, I don't know this couple at all. I don't know the back story. I don't know if she even really is diagnosed. But, he said that she overspends and she says it's because she's autistic. That was the one example that jumped out in my mind. I've been telling my clients in my 20-year history, even as being a therapist in a clinical setting, that it doesn't matter what your diagnosis or whether you're short or tall or diagnosed with something. We can't use anything like that as an excuse for our actions and our behaviors. It's like, what you said, whether we're neurotypical or neurodivergent, we can't not read. We can't not socialize. But like you were saying though, it's more about the effort it takes to go about that.

The masking itself is not atypical for human beings. We all mask. I just want to emphasize that to our viewers and listeners that everybody masks. Everybody. But let's talk about this idea that masking equals being inauthentic. 

What are your thoughts on that? 

Wendy: I had an interesting conversation with my husband because we were about to reenter a social group that we had been away from since the beginning of COVID. It had been two years. People are gonna be like, "Oh, are you happy to be back?" Or things like that.

And he was like, "I don't know what I'm gonna say," because he was still feeling a little bit hurt from some of the fallout. I don't remember exactly what I said, but I basically gave him a simple script. I just said, say this simple thing," Oh yeah, we missed everybody so much. We're so glad to be here." Was it a mask a little bit because his true feelings were like, " I am very hurt. This is very painful for me," but it was not appropriate for him to unload that on the first person who's like, "Oh hey, are you glad to be back?" 

Jodi: Yes. Okay. So what you're saying is those are some of the nonverbal dynamics of social relational interactions that are very hard to nail down, very hard to quantify and even script out. 

Those of us who are neurotypical, we are the ones more likely to tell the little white lies regularly, but my neurotypical partners oftentimes really get upset about the masking when their autistic partners do mask and are trying to use the scripts to be sensitive.

And so the neurotypical folks actually get upset. And I think part of it is my autistic folks are not sure how to do it and when to do it. I live here in the south. And in the south, there's a lot of white lies.

There's a lot of "bless your hearts." There's some funny YouTube videos about Southernisms. We're known for Southern hospitality down here in the south, but there's also a lot of sweet Southern inauthenticity down here, and it's very hard for autistic folks here because there's a lot that's not genuine because we're very focused in the south on manners and being polite.

But sometimes polite is not genuine. When someone's being polite, they're not really meaning like someone might say," come to see us." and they don't really mean it. And when you live here you know the difference between a polite "come to see us" in a," oh, I'm being invited over." 

Wendy: yeah, I get what you're saying. 

Jodi: So the autistic folks sometimes are trying to be sensitive, but they end up masking their real feelings and then a partner finds out and they feel like my husband or my wife's being dishonest with me when really they're trying to have manners or to be sensitive to their partner's feelings.

And. Nobody's really trying to be hurtful really. 

What in your social circles have you struggled with? You mentioned your homeschool. mm-hmm yeah. So in those settings, have you struggled at times to know when to be blunt versus when to be polite? 

Wendy: I probably err, on the politeness side, I. That's where I go with it. My husband's maybe on the other side of it. He airs on the bluntness side. So that's why we're a good match. 

One of the things I struggle with, you talked about different hats. It's hard for me to know which hat I'm wearing at at a time, or what's the best hat to be wearing. For a few years prior to this year, I directed a local homeschool co-op. And so you talked about like your professional hat versus your friend hat looking very different.

I probably tried to put on the professional, "I'm the director. I actually know what's going on" hat more than maybe I needed to, certainly more than helped me to build really good friendships with people. I think it was off offputting to people. 

Jodi: Yeah, I can see how that would be difficult.

And, I think some neurotypical folks might struggle with that too. But again, going back to the script, combined with the social anxiety at times too, when you add all of that together, the effort is even harder. And even just the misinterpretation, would you say, something we haven't really mentioned yet is what you have to do to interpret as the social cues you're receiving because that's part of the whole dynamic.

The masking is the mask we put on, the hat we put on, that we're then communicating to others, but then all social interactions are two way and so if we just show up with our mask on, but we're not really paying attention to the masks everybody else has on or we're not sure how to interpret it , that also contributes to how we adjust or how we respond. Can you speak to that? What that's been like for you? 

Wendy: Well, you talked about the, " come on over" can mean actually come visit us or no, don't. 

Jodi: I'm just being polite. Yeah. 

Wendy: Yeah. 

I think the " Hi! How are you doing?" I have trouble really interpreting that. Do you actually want me to tell you what's going on with my life or are you just saying, oh, you're there" and you want, "I'm fine. Nice to see you." and that's okay. Moving right along. 

Jodi: That's something that we've talked about a lot before is vocal tone and tone of voice actually is part of that. Knowing if someone's actually asking you, "Hey, how are you doing" versus, "Hey, how you doing?" The tone that there's just so many subtle cues that indicate to us what someone's actually saying to us and then also the mask that they're wearing that day. There just so much information that's conveyed in a microsecond. Visually auditory, the tone they're using, the words they say, the volume of their voice, and just body language. There's a lot there.

Wendy: And it happened so fast. I think there's also processing speed issues.

At least for me, my processing speed is not fast. I'm, first of all reacting to the fact that, "Oh, there's a person in my space. Wait, I've gotta pay attention to this person." And then they're already halfway through saying, "Hi. How are you doing?" And before I can even attend to the tone of the question. Then I'm checking their body language.

Do they look like they're ready to head out of here or are they actually getting settled in like they wanna start a conversation? There's just so much to process in a conversation with someone and it can get really overwhelming. I work at home. I have five kids who are looking for my attention throughout the day. But for someone who is working at an office and having interactions with coworkers or clients throughout the day, they get home and just mentally shot 

Jodi: I think you need to not diminish what you do all day long. You are no less mentally shot at the end of the day than those folks who are working in an office with those five kids. Your job as a full time mom and homeschool mom at that. My hat's off to you for what you do. 

Wendy: I make the comparison simply because it is a lot of work and I often am shot at the end of the day and my husband comes home and we do the best we can.

It helps that we have the information that we have, that we can give each other grace and space when we need it. And be really open and forthright with our communication with each other. That helps too. But with my five kids, like they're the same five people and I can learn their cues day after day after day. 

Jodi: Oh, I see what you mean there. 

Wendy: I worked as a bank teller. We had people coming in all throughout the day. 

So like different people, you know. 

Jodi: And that's it folks for episode one of season three. Listen to bonus clips of my conversation with Wendy in our bonus episode at the end of season three. Next week, Kerry Magro. Another great conversation that you're not going to want to miss. 

Thank you so much to all of my guests of season three of the YOUR Neurodiverse Relationship podcast. These folks are bringing their lives to you to help all of you out there who are trying to figure out your own relationships. 

If you'd ever be interested in being on a podcast, just email us at [email protected]

Also, be sure to visit me online at jodicarlton.com to see all the resources that I have available to you. Until next time!

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