This guest post is from Allie, where she will be talking about autism masking, which is something that many people on the autistic spectrum struggle with. Feel free to check out Allie’s Instagram page @autisticallie and YouTube page, which can be found here.
Prior to realizing that I was autistic, I didn’t fully notice that I wore a mask every moment I walked out the door. Everyone puts on a happy, friendly face to make good impressions in public, right? We all muster up the energy to match those around us, absorbing the language and mannerisms of others that seem to garner more praise. That’s normal.
Or so I thought. Maybe we all act slightly differently in public than at home, but autistic people often unknowingly create an entirely new character, an avatar to represent them in a positive light and make everyone else comfortable. It’s a learned survival tactic to avoid osterication and judgment.
As a woman unknowingly hiding my autism from the world as best as I could, I learned to jump through all the hoops in my way. I put on the song and dance to prove myself worthy of respect and acceptance. No wonder I loved acting and being in plays growing up: I was putting on a show every single day.
Autistic masking aggravated my underlying mental illnesses of anorexia, social anxiety, and severe depression. The more years I spent surrounded by neurotypical people who could easily meet any expectations of a “normal” teenager, the more I felt a broken, incapable failure. How could everyone else accomplish the same goals and tasks as me with half the effort?
It took me until I realized I was autistic in my twenties that it hit me like a ton of bricks: maybe I have no idea who I actually am. The entire process of figuring out one’s identity and purpose happened all over again, but this time, it was real. It actually honored me rather than punished me or pushed me in the directions I thought I should go.
So, it turns out, that identity and purpose I was so desperate to find? It was being autistic and advocating for autistic and disabled rights. Choosing to unmask myself and become completely open about my disabilities has been the most rewarding experience of my life. I cannot imagine being anything except vulnerable and honest. Doing so elevates everything else I pursue.
The juggling act of autistic masking is a lost cause. Even as neurodiverse people feel pressured to fit the status quo, our limited energy becomes increasingly depleted until we completely burn out. It’s not until society at large accepts us as we are–authentically autistic people who approach the world and present themselves differently–can we truly stop this vicious cycle of masking.
Unmasking, a process that can feel so daunting and impossible to fully accomplish, isn’t an overnight revelation. Virtually every aspect of our modern life has been ingrained with ableism, making it very difficult to distinguish where autistic masking ends and begins. However, what is ultimately most important in your own autistic unmasking journey is your intention. The very act of defying the norms to exist in your truth is beyond courageous. You’re taking steps that lead you closer to you. It will feel like you’re “more autistic” now than you once were, but consider that the first stage of your “mask detox.” Give it time. You will find balance, and you will find your truth.
As autistic people, we’ve minimized ourselves long enough. Sacrificed our own needs to ensure others aren’t uncomfortable. It’s time for you to shine. Stim freely. Wear earplugs and sunglasses and noise-canceling headphones. Cut the itchy tags out of your clothes. Utilize nonverbal communication technologies. Anything and everything that allows you to thrive, do it.
I’m not done unmasking; I don’t think anyone ever is. There’s always something new you’ll be learning, more internalized ableism you’ll be squashing. Your journey can be as private or as public as you see fit. You can never predict how people will respond or if they’ll understand. That’s okay. I encourage you to seek out groups in-person or online full of fellow autistic and neurodiverse people who can fully empathize with you. Others have unmasked before you and many more will hopefully come later. This is a personal journey, and it’s a mission for all neurodiverse people to collectively realize our gifts and strengths.
Remember that unmasking yourself is the greatest form of self-care and self-love you can ever give yourself as an autistic person. Give yourself that gift.