Another way to conceptualize masking is to see it as hiding. For over 30 years, I hid the fact that I was radically different from everyone I knew. And I am not alone in this experience. Thousands (and probably millions) of autistic people learned to mask and hide their authentic experience starting in very early childhood. We learned from an early age that the intensity of who we were needed to be hidden and the only place we could be autistic was internally. And when we started to learn that we were actually autistic, our need to mask didn’t just magically go away. It is extremely difficult to learn how to allow ourselves to be outwardly seen as autistic.
The neurodiversity movement is not mainstream yet. And therefore, most people view autism in a very pathologized way. And we autistics know this. Imagine being an extremely sensitive person and knowing that if you truly acted authentically, you would be viewed negatively and pathologized by society? No wonder it’s so hard for us to unmask and express ourselves.
And what’s even more wild is if we’ve spent our whole lives suppressing our autistic traits, the people in our lives assume we don’t have them. Never underestimate an autistic person’s ability to mask even the most painful experiences. We see it in movies all the time, the stoic warrior gets stabbed and still saves the baby without even wincing. That’s what it’s like to mask, we could be melting down internally, but we’ve learned how to smile and say we are fine.
As you can imagine, suppressing who you are and how you feel can’t be good for you. Masking contributes to meltdowns and burnout for autistic people. It further distances us from other people because we never truly let them get to know us. And our stress remains inside with limited socially acceptable ways to be expressed. If your brain is thinking, well, just unmask then! Yes, BUT remember that thing I said before about society not being neurodiversity-affirming? Yeah, it’s not actually safe for a lot of us to unmask, at least not all the time.