Masking is a popular word in neurodiverse linguistics right now.
It’s popular because it puts a name to something so many people experience: putting on a “mask” of neurotypical behaviors to fit into the neurotypical world. Most commonly, people do it unconsciously. Many unidentified autistics spend the majority of their lifetimes masking.
When someone learns they are autistic as an adult, they can begin to examine all of the things they did to “fit in.” They can begin to unmask.
It sounds simple in theory. However, it quickly gets complicated for multiple reasons.
You have to be able to identify masking behavior in the first place. As I mentioned, much of masking behavior is subconscious. Learning to identify masking behavior is a combination of getting to know your autistic self and self-educating.
You have to develop understanding and awareness of your autistic self. An unidentified autistic may not have been allowed the space to express and explore their autistic characteristics. For example, they may have been discouraged from spending so much time in special interests so that they could be more “balanced.” They may have been stopped from stimming behavior. Learning you are autistic is the beginning of an exploration.
You have to discern when and where it is appropriate to unmask. It might be a positive thing to unmask with your closest friend, but deeply uncomfortable or unsafe to do so in a public environment.
You have to select which aspects of yourself to unmask. We often talk about unmasking like it is an all or nothing thing. I wrote about this in my essay The False Dichotomy of Unmasked and Masked Autism. In reality, unmasking looks like selecting which particular characteristics in that moment you want to fully share. For example, you may feel comfortable sharing your direct feelings in a conversation, but not sharing the constellation of thoughts that are also running in your mind at the same time.
You need to practice the skill of unmasking. Just because you can identify what your masking behaviors are doesn’t mean it is easy to stop them. For example, many late-identified autistics developed the masking skill of people pleasing. This can be a very hard behavior to stop and takes practice in multiple environments across time. For myself, I’ve needed the support of therapy to learn how to let this behavior go (and I’m still working on it!).
Unmasking also means with yourself. We often talk about unmasking around others, but often we need to practice unmasking with ourselves. It means letting go of all the things we thought we “should” do and let ourselves be. It also means attending to our unique desires and needs. Similar to the other points, this takes time and exploration.
For all of these reasons, “unmasking” is complex. It might also be helpful if we develop a word that isn’t associated with undoing something, but rather a slow becoming and exploration. I don’t have that word yet, but I’d love to hear ideas if you have them.
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