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Autistic skill regression vs. Unmasking

Autistic therapist online california minnesota

I remember when I first got a job working for my county government. Coming from a rocky economic background that included bankruptcy and homelessness as a child, I felt like I had “made it.” I was also excited to dress the part and I remember getting a bunch of dress pants, pencil skirts, and scratchy blouses that looked super grown up (IMO).

I lasted about 1-2 months wearing these clothes before I began to abandon the worst offenders: any skirt. The truth is that I don’t like skirts at all and I dislike the sensory experience of them. As my career changed and I went from government work to work from home, I began to abandon all those dressy clothes entirely. I’ve now kept one pair of dress pants “just in case” but I doubt I’ll ever wear them.

The process I went through tends to be incorrectly labeled as skill regression. In many ways, I lost the “skill” of looking professional. If you asked me today to dress up in a pencil skirt and blouse, I would say I can’t. I now know how much those clothes were uncomfortable to me and I won’t put myself through that anymore. Although this may look like skill regression, I see it as unmasking.

Unmasking and skill regression can look similar. The biggest difference is that skill regression is usually linked to autistic burnout while unmasking can happen with or without burnout present. I can highlight the difference between the two in how I have experienced both unmasking and skill regression related to food preparation.

I recently broke my collarbone which caused me to experience skill regression in terms of being able to use the executive functioning skills to meal plan, buy ingredients and cook complex meals. I have also been unmasking related to food but this has looked different. Unmasking has been allowing myself to eat similar foods every day because that’s what I crave despite society telling me I should eat more fancy, complex, or a wider variety of things. While my skill regression and unmasking may look similar, they have different mechanisms at play.

Sometimes it isn’t 100% clear what is unmasking and what is skill regression, we are complex beings after all and these things don’t occur in a vacuum. Unmasking can be both a conscious and unconscious process. As we make the intention to unmask, we may unravel various aspects of lives that no longer serve us. This may look like we are losing a skill but we are really gaining comfort and a life that fits us better.

Nothing is black and white, sometimes I wish I could follow the trends and look a certain way. I grieve the fact that, due to my sensory needs and executive functioning ability, I can't do that. Learning I was neurodivergent set me on a path that has involved disappointment, frustration, grief, relief, acceptance, and gratitude. I sometimes experience all of these emotions at once (although, due to Alexithymia, I may not realize it at the time). There is no straight and narrow path of "unmasking", it is a journey, sometimes moving forward or backward or stalled. It is a process of discovery and learning.

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