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Reframing the Mask

Updated: Sep 25, 2021

Post has been edited for correction and the addition of a link.

It was not my intention to write another autistic blog, but yaknow, sometimes a topic just gets stuck in your head, especially when that topic is hard-wired into your head. So, today, I want to talk about Masking.

Now, in case you don’t know, “masking” in this context refers to a coping strategy in which an autistic person acts in a neurotypical fashion, in order to blend in better into neurotypical society. This can include stimming in more “acceptable” fashions, or suppressing stims altogether, mirroring people in conversation, and many other strategies.

(If this is a topic you would like to learn more about, may I suggest this YouTube video by autistic content creator, Yo Samdy Sam)

While masking can be helpful to survive in a neurotypical world, it is also exhausting, because you have to put in that extra work in order to maintain and keep on the mask. Also, and this goes especially for autistic folx who are diagnosed or who self-discover late in life, masking can become so second-nature and ingrained, that it leads to an identity crisis.

Questions like, “But who am I without the mask,” or “without this mask, would anyone really like me,” can cause havoc on your mental health.

As for me, I was diagnosed very recently. In fact, this month is the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis. And while I, and everyone around me knew something was “different” about me, I spent my whole life not knowing what that was.

And yet, in spite of that, I have a distinct memory tattooed into my soul of writing a poem in middle school called, “The Masks,” and how I felt I had to wear masks in order to just live, and how hard that was for me. (I have no idea where that poem went. I would love to read it again, but alas it is lost to time.) So, way before I was diagnosed, back before I had any kind of meaningful understanding about autism, I understood masking and I hated it.

So, it is a little strange that I am going to be speaking in defense of Masking today.

Now, I want to make it clear, if you are autistic, and you do not mask, or you don’t feel the need to mask, that is entirely valid. Hell, I would love to live in a world in which masking isn’t required. In fact, I think that part of neurodiverse activism should include working to build a world in which everyone can live without feeling the need to mask.

With all that being said, I am not advocating for the use of full on masks, per se. However, I think it is important to remember that “masking” is actually not a practice that is necessarily unique to the autistic community. Now, don’t get me wrong, masking in a neurotypical fashion is unique to us, but consider for a moment the concept of “code switching.”

Code Switching is a practice in which individuals will change their behaviors and demeanors depending on varying situations. For example many people will act very differently depending on if they are interacting with a friend vs. their boss. This is the sort of thing most people - read neurotypical people - do so often and intuitively, that they may not even realize that they are doing it.

Meanwhile, for autistic people, these rules are not hardwired in our brains the way they seem to be for neurotypical people, and so we have to work extra hard, in order to switch codes, often over-compensating, which leads to masking.

But code-switching is still a necessary social tool. I mean you don’t want to act the same way around your boss as you would your friend. Not only could that put your employment at risk, but it could also get pretty awkward.

Plus, as an autistic person you still have to survive in a neurotypical world.

So, what is an autistic person to do?

Well, something that has helped me personally is reframing how I view masking. First, I don’t think of it as “Masking.” Like, who wants to mask? No thank you. I don’t want to be anyone other than myself.

Instead, I think of my version of “Masking” as “Filtering.”

I have a filter for work, a filter for activist spaces, and a filter for the cashier at the grocery store. These filters help me still be myself, but in a way that fits into whatever situation I am in.

Another reason I use the filter method is because I have a tendency of oversharing, which is another autistic trait. Seriously, if left unfiltered I can share some pretty personal stuff without thinking, or possibly hurt someone’s feelings with how blunt I can be. So using filters, basically taking the time to think through what I am going to say, how I am going to say it, or how I am going to act, helps me maintain healthy boundaries and healthy relationships.

And of course, I also make sure to find folx I don’t have to filter around, such as my family, close friends, and other autistics, so I can give the filter a break from time to time. And when I give the filter a break, I can give myself a break.

I hope this reframing aids other autistic folx. Masking can be incredibly stressful and harmful if you feel like you have to do it all the time, and it can also eat away at your self-identity and self-worth. But, unfortunately - at least in my experience - is still necessary to survive in a neurotypical world. But by thinking of your “mask” as a “filter” instead, will hopefully allow you to be more of yourself.

After all, a Mask covers up the real you entirely, while a filter - well, filters - what is already there. With a filter, you are still able to be yourself, even if they are different “filtered” versions of yourself.

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