Discussions about masked and unmasked autism can reinforce a false dichotomy of what it means to be autistic. It implies there is a hard, clear line between when we are our autistic selves and when we are not.
It is seldom that simple. In a previous essay about this false dichotomy, I shared that one of the key differences between masking and living more fully as our autistic selves lies in choice. When we unknowingly do something to fit in, it falls into masking. When we are aware of the situation, our motivating factors, and consciously choose the degree we want to be our full selves, we are acting in alignment with our autistic being. We are making choices that honor our needs.
After I wrote those words, my mind began to wonder, “But what about autistics who are always choosing to hold themselves back? What about autistics who find themselves in situations over and over where they don’t feel safe to be their full autistic selves? Even though they are being their full autistic selves in those moments, is it healthy to do that all of the time?”
It’s important for us to honor our needs. If an autistic person is in a situation where it might harm them if they share their full selves, then it’s important to act in ways that protect ourselves. However, doing this over and over and over can have damaging impacts on our well-being. As humans we need connection and belonging. We need places where we can be seen, heard, and understood. We need people with whom we can share our full selves and be appreciated for who we are.
When someone is a newly identified autistic adult, they might not have that. However, that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. We can accept it as our current reality and make slow efforts to construct a new reality.
We can explore and experiment sharing more and more of our autistic with a trusted friend. We can seek out new neurodivergent friendships online or within our communities. We can attend neurodivergent groups and other places where we can be more of our full selves. We can practice being more of our full selves in our homes. We can slowly shift our schedules so that it meets our needs more and more. We can seek coaching or therapy to help us discern other changes to make.
It will take time. It will take slow, deliberate effort. It will take experimenting. I don’t want to fall into the neurotypical norm of “push yourself harder” and “make drastic changes now.” We can reject these harmful norms and make changes in ways and paces that honor our divergent minds.
With time, we can foster more and more friendships where we are seen, heard, and understood. We can find more and more places where we can be ourselves. We can feel more and more joy in our day to day lives.
Thank you for reading. If you’d like to read more, sign up for my FUNletter. If you would like to explore your autistic identity with an autistic therapist, you can learn more about my therapy services here.