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.

Personal Life

On Classroom Accommodations

A post online the other day brought up something that hits on two major intersections in my life: teaching and being neurodivergent. The post talked about how professors/teachers need to stop treating students’ accommodations as charity they allow them to have and something that allows a marginalized person to participate more fully in the class/discussion/college community.

If you don’t know what accommodations are, they’re often things like giving a student with ADHD more time in class for tests or allowing a diabetic student to eat in class if their blood sugar is low. In order for students to receive accommodations in class, there are often a lot of hoops they have to jump through, such as having a diagnosis, getting a doctor to write up the accommodation, having the school approve it, having it passed out to the professors and signed off on, AND the professor still can sort of shrug it off. The student can always complain to academic affairs or whatever office deals with IEPs/accommodations, but that requires energy and cooperation from the office with no promise that the professor will ultimately cooperate or not hold it against the student for pushing back.

Something I instituted in my class this semester is a self-diagnosis policy. Often students who are autistic or have ADHD struggle to get a diagnosis as an adult or find getting a diagnosis could actually work against them (I have avoided an official autism diagnosis because you can be denied organ transplants among other things. Look it up; it’s an awful, ableist policy centered around “quality of life”). Since my classes are writing-focused, there aren’t tests, which makes allowing for extra time or other accommodations easier (no dealing with the Academic Support Center, etc.), but I have had students with anxiety, migraines, stomach issues, etc. who end up missing class more than the average student. My policy is now that as long as you keep up with your work and give me a heads-up, we’re good.

There’s some professor out there who is going, “But if I let one do that, they’ll all do that!” Shockingly, they don’t. They really, really don’t. I have had students reach out to me due to extenuating circumstances or medical issues, and so far, they always keep up with their work. The rest of the class continues on as is. Those who need it, use it. Those who don’t, don’t. If you’re not sure why this matters for quality of life, let me tell you the story of why I stopped going to a professional to get my hair cut.

As a little background, I have eczema crop up all over my body. In the past, before I started taking a biologic, it was severe, and it’s aggravated by chemicals, fragrances, etc. to the point that I only use one kind of shampoo. I also have sensory problems where things most people take for granted REALLY bother me. People touching my head or face is not a fun experience. The hair dryer is hell as it is hot, loud, but the stop and start of it just frays my nerves after while. Even a hairbrush running across my scalp bothers me if I’m stressed enough.

My aunt was going to one hairdresser who was younger and very nice. I asked my aunt to ask her if I could come to the salon with a wet head, so she didn’t have to wash my hair (aka avoid the shampoo and copious head touching). She agreed, and I went. Everything went great. My hair looked nice, and she even asked if I wanted my hair dried or left damp the second time I visited her, and from then on, we just left it damp to dry naturally. I have straight hair that dries quickly, so it looks fine after. Avoiding having my hair washed and dried made getting a haircut far less stressful. I actually didn’t hate it, though the talking throughout was less than ideal but doable.

The problem came up with my preferred hairdresser switched days and salons, and I couldn’t see her. I was desperate for a haircut before the semester started that year, so I booked an appointment with someone my other aunt used in the same salon. Big mistake. She ran roughshod over my needs. I came with a wet head, and she made me get my hair washed. I protested, and she just ushered me over the shampoo girl anyway. It caught me by such surprise that I just sort of blanked instead of fighting it further. Everything went downhill from there. My head already was itching. I told her what I wanted and showed her pictures, and she went rogue because a different length would “look better with my face.” I asked if she could not blow dry my hair, and she ignored me again. By the time I left, I was ready to cry. I was angry and frustrated that she ignored things she could have easily accommodated and completely overstimulated me. It’s been several years, and I haven’t gone back to get my hair professionally cut for fear that any accommodation I ask for will be treated like I’m being dramatic.

I keep this trip to the salon in mind when students tell me they’re struggling with something or need something to help them succeed. It isn’t “special” treatment, it’s creating equity in the classroom by leveling the playing field and removing barriers that would hinder a students’ ability to function. By ignoring an accommodation, at best, you’re making things harder than they have to be. At worst, you are actively harming your student. The hairdryer made me more overstimulated, making it harder to get through the haircut experience. The shampoo full of fragrances I didn’t want them to use actively harmed my skin, and I got an eczema flare on my scalp and neck the next day.

Something other teachers might want to consider when a students asks for an official or unofficial accommodation is that not every disability or illness is visible or consistent. I have IBS. Luckily it’s IBS-C, which doesn’t interfere too much with my life. Imagine having IBS-D and telling your professor you can’t come to a workshop class because you’re in the middle of a flare (aka frequent bathroom trips) but you will send in your feedback to your groupmates in hopes of getting credit. And your professor fires back, you look fine most of the time and to get credit, you have to be present bodily. Should your student have to disclose that they are worried about shitting themselves in class in order for you to let them do their work remotely? On the neurodivergent side of things, I don’t tell everyone I’m neurodivergent because people have some weird assumptions they will apply to you. If you say you’re autistic, people will treat you differently if they don’t know you and what you’re capable of. Students shouldn’t have to make themselves vulnerable and open to potential ridicule or ableism by disclosing specifics.

As we head into the middle of the semester, I want you to think about what your reaction to reading this was. My fear is always that someone says, “If they can’t handle it, they shouldn’t be here.” Why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t an autistic student or a chronically ill student be at school? What about their condition precludes them from accessing a good education? What makes their education less worthy than that of their neurotypical or non-chronically ill peer? The bootstrap attitude is ableist bullshit, and if you’re reaction was to question the student’s value or fitness, I hope you will seek out chronically ill or neurodivergent authors to work on yourself because you really don’t belong in a classroom if you’re going to actively hinder your students. To those who want to better support their students, I hope you will allow for unofficial accommodations in your future classrooms.