Autistic people often figure out at a young age that their experiences with other (usually allistic) people tend to go better when they suppress autistic traits, even if they don’t understand that those traits are linked to being autistic at the time. This causes autistic people to create a version of themselves that is more suitable and “appropriate” for society. This is what masking, or camouflaging, is. It takes up energy everyday to stop yourself stimming, or to change your way of talking or to force yourself to make facial expressions that don’t feel natural to make others comfortable.
Learning to unmask
A big part of my experience with being diagnosed later in life is learning to unmask and discover everything I hid from others and even myself. I was starting to learn what this meant for me after my own diagnosis, but it wasn’t until the start of the Covid-19 pandemic that I had the time and space to really figure it out. After not knowing I was autistic for most of my life, it was difficult to recognise when I was and wasn’t masking because I did it subconsciously. Depending on what the person considers a safe space, they may mask almost all of the time.
I realised that there were certain behaviours I only did when I was alone – like flapping my hands, scrunching up my face and having meltdowns. I also started to recognise the energetic cost of masking during lockdowns when I didn’t have to see people in person for long periods of time. Socialising – especially in situations that are unfamiliar or overwhelming – can be exhausting as my brain goes into overdrive trying to figure out what the appropriate responses, body language, facial expressions and topics of conversation are for every new person I meet. This is something that allistic people don’t necessarily expend as much energy worrying about.
I took advantage of my time spent alone during lockdowns to allow myself to unmask consciously for the first time in my life. This involved letting my body move however it wanted, learning what sensory experiences I didn’t like and avoiding them instead of putting up with them, and letting myself explore special interests that I had buried years ago. It’s the best kind of self-care and self-love I have ever done.
Unmasking was freeing and let me connect with a part of my childhood and my own brain that I had locked away and I began to understand myself so much better. I could feel when meltdowns were coming, I learned to recognise burnout, I started to stim more naturally and genuinely took care of my entire wellbeing. But as the lockdowns ended and life moved towards reunions and social lives, I realised that I would need to decide if I should and could unmask around other people besides those that I lived with.
Unmasking around others
This is where it got a lot scarier. Autistic people mask to avoid their traits being noticed and attacked, and I was scared that I might encounter negative reactions to my autistic traits. There were also the implications of unmasking around people that have known my neurotypical “mask” for years. I knew they would have questions if my behaviours suddenly started to change since hardly anyone had ever witnessed me have a meltdown and aside from what everyone called a “nervous tick”, no one had seen me stim. Unmasking for me also means using less emotive speech and facial expressions and avoiding eye contact which can seem cold and unnerving to allistics. I wasn’t sure if the people I cared about would be able to understand me like this, or even if they would still like me.
It might seem like a strange idea to “force” myself to act natural, but that’s what I tried to do as I started to see my loved ones again. For me this involves consciously doing certain behaviours until they become more natural again. I used less eye contact and got rid of my “neurotypical filter” in conversations and instead spoke in a way that was comfortable (which sometimes meant not speaking at all). I talked and talked and talked about autism with everyone that I could. And slowly but surely, my friends and family started to see the changes and they miraculously and thankfully encouraged them.
How do I unmask?
I don’t have one answer to this question because masking can include such a huge diversity of things. I am continuously learning more about myself and there are certain spaces where I do not yet feel safe or comfortable enough to unmask. I still suffer the consequences of it.
But I have always been aware that what I projected to the rest of the world was very different to what I was like alone. I think the first step is recognising that you do mask, then beginning to allow yourself to discover everything you are hiding. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a while, this is something that is engrained into our subconscious from a young age and it is hard to unlearn.
This world is not always a welcoming place for autistic people who do not mask and this is something that we need to recognise and address. People are called “more autistic” or on the “severe” end of the spectrum simply for not masking while others suffer in silence and are praised for it. This is not something that autistic people alone are responsible for changing. If more neurotypical people created spaces where we feel safe to unmask, you will begin to undo the deep trauma that we experienced to force us to mask in the first place.