Mask on, Mask off: How the common understanding of Autistic masking is creating another mask
This post was authored by Tanya Adkin
Over the years I’ve been privileged enough to play a part in the discovery journey of what must be hundreds of Autistic people. One of the questions I am frequently asked about masking is “how do I unmask?”, as if there is a more authentic version of themselves that exists below the layers of neuronormative conditioning and the traumas that come with that.
My answer is often received as quite shocking. You don’t unmask. Not consciously, at least.
Masking tends to be commonly understood (thanks to some really interesting literature) as a choice. Almost as if when somebody suggests that we are Autistic, or we come to that realisation, we can begin to remove parts of ourselves that we deem “inauthentic” or “forced”, but where is the roadmap that tells us which parts are inauthentic or forced? How do we know what is the mask and what is us?
Autistic masking (also referred to in the literature as camouflaging, compensation, and most recently “adaptive morphing”) is the conscious or unconscious suppression of natural responses and adoption of alternatives across a range of domains including social interaction, sensory experience, cognition, movement, and behavior.Pearson & Rose, 2021
To sum up the above quote, while we can consciously choose to conceal authentic Autistic expression as a way to avoid stigma; masking is also an unconscious projection of acceptability in an effort to avoid traumatic situations that arise from our differences. Projecting acceptability does not just mean pretending to appear more neurotypical.
Much like water, we take the shape of our container. To put it another way, we don’t choose the form that our masking takes, the environments we exist within often choose it for us. This is why many Autistic people experience internalised ableism, the environment of neuronormative society teaches us that we are broken and unworthy.
These attitudes are taught to us from the moment we commence education. Schools that give out attendance rewards, and punish children and families that struggle to engage, usually because of unmet needs or disability.Gray-Hammond & Adkin, 2021
This feeds back into Beardon’s Golden equation:
Autism + Environment = Outcome
It stands to reason then that if you have been unconsciously masking for a significant amount of time in order to protect yourself due to previously traumatic experiences, you may not even be aware of the ways in which you conceal yourself. Traumatic experiences for an Autistic person are unavoidable (Gray-Hammond & Adkin, 2021), therefore an unconscious response to said trauma in the form of projecting acceptability is also unavoidable.
50% of Autistic people are alexithymic (Kinnaird et al, 2019). Which means that we have difficulties reading, interpreting, or even feeling our emotions. Emotions are an internal sense, this sense is called interoception. When we talk about alexithymia what we are talking about is interoceptive differences specifically related to our experiences of emotion. If we have interoceptive differences, how are we supposed to know which internal authentic expressions we are unconsciously masking?
I posit that masking is one of the most authentically Autistic expressions. It’s been argued that not all Autistic people mask, what we actually know is that all people mask, regardless of their neurology. This has been called many different things, from “using a telelphone voice” to code switching. All of us mask, it’s a human experience. For monotropic people, who cannot perform neurotypicality as comfortably as a polytropic person might, the taxation on one’s attentional resources can be huge. This then leads to monotropic split (Adkin, 2022), burnout, potential suicidality, and mental health concerns.
If all humans mask to some degree then so do all Autistic people. We need to get rid of the notion that masking is appearing more neurotypical. This may not be achievable for everyone. There are often phrases thrown around such as “high-masking” or “unable to mask”. To me this is repackaging of functioning labels. Truth be told if we are basing our analysis of somebody’s ability to mask on how neurotypical they appear, we are missing the entire point of an unconscious trauma response.
If cognitively privileged Autistic people are unable to articulate the beginnings and ends of an unconscious mask, then who are we to impose our own unconscious masking onto another. We are reinforcing neuronormative and ableist stereotypes by assuming that all masking is about performing neurotypicality, and that neurotypicality is something we should emulate.
When we discover our Autistic identity, our environment changes. The vessel in which we exist is changing shape, so therefore so are we. This could be the literature, the information absorbed in google searches, the attitudes around us (such as those of Autistic advocates). It could reinforce negative views of ourselves.
What people are really asking is not how to unmask, but “how do I behave more Autistically?”
The unconscious masking is so ingrained into us that the assumption is often “if I behave Autistically, things will be better”. Which in its own way is a conscious expression of masking in order to avoid the traumas which masking created in the first place. It follows a cycle of imposter sydrome. Doubting one’s identity, because you don’t flap your hands, or because you are considered “sociable”. I am not ashamed to admit that I have been formally identified twice because of this.
We share commonality but when you’ve met one Autistic person, you have met one Autistic person. Our life experiences (like it or not) shape who we are. The concept of unmasking can oftentimes (in my experience) create somewhat of a secondary identity crisis. You unconsciously consider yourself not neurotypical enough, but also not Autistic enough. Further from this, we can see exaggerated expressions of the Autistic Self as a way to project acceptability within the new environment in which we now exist. Also, as a way to deter potentially harmful environmental interference.
We become angry, and rightfully so. We may notice that we have been too passive, we are given a licence to lean into stereotypical Autistic expression. There is nothing wrong with that. One could say that we try on the Autistic mask because this is how we have been conditioned to behave.
It is still very much an unconscious projection of acceptability in order to keep oneself safe. So therefore, we do not unmask in the way that many think we do; we do not peel of our face to leave by the bedside at night time. You are already authentically Autistic.
It takes time, but what we can do is become more aware of our environments and reframe our own experiences thus far, which eventually, hopefully, leads us to exist in a way that is least taxing on our internal resources but also keeps us safe.
Adkin, T (2022) What is monotropic split? Emergent Divergence. emergentdivergence.com
Gray-Hammond, D & Adkin, T (2021) Creating Autistic Suffering: Ableism and Discrimination. Emergent Divergence. emergentdivergence.com
Kinnaird, E., Stewart, C., & Tchanturia, K. (2019). Investigating alexithymia in autism: A systematic review and meta-analysis. European Psychiatry, 55, 80-89.
Pearson, A., & Rose, K. (2021). A conceptual analysis of autistic masking: Understanding the narrative of stigma and the illusion of choice. Autism in Adulthood, 3(1), 52-60.
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