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  • Writer's pictureAshlea McKay

Quirk Monster #3: Masking and autism

A wall of face masks in different colours and with different expressions
A wall of face masks in different colours and with different expressions.

Masking and the stigma that drives it is a big problem.

Masking occurs when I use my intellect to ‘pass’ as someone who is not autistic all while hiding my autistic traits. I mask my autism by doing things like scripting my conversations in advance and/or mimicking neurotypical behaviours in an effort to blend in and hopefully avoid the negative consequences of not naturally aligning to social norms. When masking, I’ll often say and do things I don’t mean or I just won’t say anything at all. 

Masking is incredibly painful and exhausting for me — you try pretending to be someone else for long periods of time. Masking could be viewed as long term method acting and it takes a lot of energy to keep that mask up. It’s also quite harmful because some of the traits I have to hide help me self-regulate and calm myself. Masking primes my brain for an autistic meltdown (to be discussed in a future Quirk Monster post) which is not fun at all.

While you might think this is a totally normal thing that you do every day, I’m not talking about biting your tongue once in awhile, working with someone you don’t like or putting pants on before leaving the house. Masking runs deeper than that and is rooted in ableism and intolerance. 

Masking exists entirely for the comfort of non-autistic people so they experience as little of autism as possible and is often forced upon us with no regard for our wellbeing. I wish I could take that mask off for good but it isn't that simple. Broadly speaking, society fuelled by stigma and misunderstanding, expects me to wear it. I often need to mask my autism for safety reasons because it is so easily mistaken for rudeness or aggression and in my experience when out in public, people can be so quick to judge and don’t always consider the possibility that there might be more going on. There are many places where it’s not safe for me to be myself. I never leave the house without my medicalert bracelet for this very reason.  

I feel that the expectation of masking stems from the narrative that autism is bad. That autistic people are somehow broken or damaged and need to ‘work hard’ to ‘fit in’. It makes my blood boil when people praise autistic people for how well they comply with the demand that they ‘act normal’. As though that should be the ultimate goal of every autistic person. 

Autism — and neurodiversity in general — doesn’t always get a look in when it comes to Diversity and Inclusion. It’s not a widely accepted form of difference. This needs to change. 

Instead of trying to pull one group into line with the rest, focus on learning how to meet people halfway. Sure, my autism might annoy you, but you’re not exactly perfect yourself! No one is. We should be coming together and celebrating our differences and leveraging them to our collective advantage. Everyone should be free to be their whole and authentic selves because that’s when the magic happens. 

Author’s note

This short article is a lived experience example shared from my life to help you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be autistic. I am just one autistic person in a really big world. No two of us are exactly alike. I can only speak for myself and to my own experiences. If you want to know what other autistic people think — and you should — look them up, talk to them and read their work too. We all have our own voices and this is only mine. This article is part of a mini content series I publish to LinkedIn when I can. You can view the other articles in this series via my LinkedIn profile.

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