Personal Life

On Autistic (Un)masking

Something I have been trying to do these past few months is mask less. Masking in this case is not trying to act neurotypical. Most autistic and neurodivergent people fake it til we make it. We know there is a social protocol that we should follow, whether it makes any logical sense to us or not. If you aren’t sure what I mean, here’s an example: When someone says, “How are you?” they really aren’t asking how you are. Unless they are a very good friend or your partner or someone on that level, they don’t care. It’s an empty small talk question, and the only acceptable answer is good, okay, or to complain about something you both don’t like (like work or a sports team losing). If you say, “Ugh, my IBS was acting up over the weekend and I’m exhausted,” they will look at you like you have lost your mind or stop asking you how you are. Or my absolute favorite, they will ask and keep walking. Tell me you don’t care without telling me you don’t care.

Anyway, masking is somehow equal parts passive and purposeful. There are times when the mask just automatically appears, like someone catches you off-guard or you say your automatic responses to things. For people who may not realize they’re autistic or can’t unmask, it will be far more automatic but still completely exhausting. Most of the time, masking is something we feel keenly, especially if we’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s the mental equivalent of unzipping a tight pair of pants when you get home or tossing off your bra after work. When I’m masking, I’m constantly doing mental calculations. Am I holding eye contact long enough? Am I doing it too long? Do people think I’m being shifty? Am I talking about something inappropriate? Have I said something by accident that will make my friend hate me? Masking makes any prolonged social interaction something I need days to recover from. Being “normal” is exhausting, and even masking, I don’t do a terribly good job.

What I’ve tried doing is essentially “coming out” as autistic to my students. Quite a few of them are neurodivergent, which helps. I don’t lead with it day one, but I make it clear that I accept self-diagnoses and self-made accommodations for people who are neurodivergent. Once I start talking, I’m sure some have an inkling. Eventually this semester, I came out to both classes sort of by accident, and it was a MASSIVE relief. I still watch my words and make sure I don’t accidentally hurt someone’s feelings, but not having to worry about eye contact or modulating my speech patterns makes teaching so much less exhausting. Personally, I think I’m more engaging when I loosen up and allow myself to be weird in class (especially knowing the laughs I receive are not mocking). The hope is that it will also make my students more comfortable, and for some, meeting a neurodivergent professor and/or writer may also be affirming.

The problem is that because I’m masking less, when I feel like I need to mask due to the situation (doctor’s office, grocery store, extended family, etc.), it is exhausting. It is so much worse than it usually is because I’m not accustomed to doing it as much. It’s like not exercising and being told to run a mile. I just want to collapse in a heap of social exhaustion after masking now. I used to be able to sort of hold it off until I totally fried myself, which is not great, and it sucks because I want to mask less. I need to. It’s better for my mental health to not be “on” constantly, especially when being “on,” is being akin to being a different person. But I can’t not mask all the time because it isn’t safe to, and the social repercussions of being unmasked around people who don’t understand are not worth the backlash. I absolutely dread the times I need to socially mask now, and I hate how much I’m not looking forward to holiday gatherings because of it. You would think family would be the people you could be yourself with, but when they think of autism as only non-verbal people who have high needs, they don’t believe you, even if you meet the criteria in spades and they think you’re weird.

I’m already still semi in the closet with being queer and nonbinary around my family, so compounding it with not outing myself as autistic, creates a day full of exhaustion and stifling un-Kara-ness. The stiff smiling, awkward(er) version of me feels so pale in comparison to the vibrant weirdo I know I can be when I’m with my students or my friends/partner. I just wish I felt comfortable letting that version of me out more often.

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