Ever since learning I am autistic, I’ve been trying to figure out what it means to be autistic.
What is autistic? What is not? What is this? What is that?
Terms like masking and camouflaging make sense, but what is me unmasked and what is me masked? Again, the theme of “what is this” and “what is that.”
Of course, in trying to find the answers to those questions, I submerged myself in copious amounts of reading. Eventually though, I needed to put what I was learning into action.
My practice of putting down my mask began with honoring my needs more. I realized my emotional and mental need for regeneration, and allowed myself to rest more at home without guilt.
I also started sharing and explaining my needs to others more, “No thank you, I would not like to go to that bar. I’m autistic and those kinds of environments overwhelm my senses.”
I also started letting some stimming behaviors come through more, such as playing with something in my hands when I talk to my therapy clients. I used to think I needed to sit there rigid, with a body posture that showed I was attentively listening.
I even began sharing my actual emotions with my friends and family more, and not just what I thought people wanted to hear.
It was going pretty well, until an event that reminded me how I learned to mask in the first place.
I went to my family’s house to celebrate a birthday. While there, everyone hung out and casually talked. There were a few moments where I gave my natural reactions, such as asking questions about seemingly benign things (which always make perfect sense to me) or letting my face show my actual emotional response.
Then, my dad informed me they were planning an upcoming trip to Las Vegas. I abruptly responded, “Ew! Why?” I cannot think of a place more overwhelming than Las Vegas. It was my natural reaction.
As soon as it slipped out of my mouth, my sister hissed at me, “Jackie!” And there it was. What I had forgotten from childhood. The correction after I’ve done something that was not socially appropriate.
My family constantly corrected me and taught me how to be socially appropriate as a child. My mother once told me she worked harder with me than any of my other siblings. She didn’t know I was autistic. None of us knew. But they all felt I needed extra correction and instruction. My family wasn’t trying to be cruel. They were trying to help me fit in and be a “good person.”
And so, I was sculpted into being an expert at making others feel good. I think this is common for many unidentified autistics. We’re taught how to be socially acceptable, and we become unintentional people pleasers. It teaches us to put the feelings of others before our own feelings and needs.
My reaction of “Ew!” was deemed socially inappropriate probably because it treaded on my father’s enthusiasm for going to Las Vegas.
I left that family gathering wondering if there is a world for me where I can be unmasked. As my constellation thinking took over, I remembered all of the painful moments of not fitting in and being corrected.
As I thought about my life, I realized I may not be able to be my full self with the current people in my life. We mask and camouflage for a reason. It’s naive to think that as soon as we learn we are autistic we can just throw the mask aside and life will be good.
I sat with these hard emotions for a long time.
Eventually I decided to talk to my dad. I brought up his trip and apologized for my reaction. He responded, “Oh Jackie, I wasn’t bothered. I understand. Normally I wouldn’t want to go to Las Vegas either, we just want to see Cirque de Solei.”
That moment gave me hope. It gave me another clue to figuring out unmasking - that just because people socially police me, it doesn’t mean they are right. My sister was simply acting on what we had been taught about appropriate behavior. And yet, it was inaccurate.
This also helped me see another step for unmasking in my current world: I could ask my sister to stop policing me. I could tell her she can let go of the responsibility of regulating and responding to my behavior. I could ask for autonomy over my choices. Let her know I’ve got it.
I think this is what socially unmasking really is. It is relearning and reworking WITH others. There is no pre-existing world where I can take off my mask and comfortably and safely be me (unless I’m alone in my glorious apartment). I have to make the world with others.
Sometimes, that is possible. There are people willing to go there with me and have the hard conversations, like my sister. There are also people who are not capable.
As late-identified autistics, many times we have to build new relationships if we want to have places and relationships where we can fully be ourselves.
Either way, building a world where we can comfortably unmask is a process.
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