I have masked my autism—meaning I have concealed my autistic traits—for as long as I can remember. Since receiving my autism diagnosis at age eight, in 2006, I struggled to fully accept the fact that I was autistic and therefore different from others. As a result, I did everything in my power to appear less autistic.
In 2020 (at the age of 23) I began to engage with autistic adults for the first time. Since then, I’ve made quite a few changes in my life which could be considered unmasking—although it wasn’t until recently that I discovered what unmasking is. Here are examples of how I unmask:
I no longer wear jeans, or uncomfortable clothing, full-stop. I have eczema and jeans aggravate my skin when I take them off. I used to scratch my skin to the point it would bleed. I did this for three years. Now, I use a bum bag (or fanny pack) if carrying is important.
I don’t force myself to communicate. If I’m amongst others I won’t wait for a gap to be able to jump in with a single sentence. It’s draining, and makes me feel worse. I try and identify when this happens and look to put myself in social situations that I’m comfortable in.
I’m trying to be less afraid of being myself. My humour is very silly, and I know it’s not for everyone. I try and not centre the people who won’t like it (or who won’t like me in general) in my mind over the people who do. I aim to spend more time around people who appreciate that.
I removed a significant number of my Instagram followers a few months ago, and made my account private. (The followers I lost were people I’d either worked or went to school with, who I was barely interacting with anyway.) I am now less prone to feeling judged whenever I share funny clips or open up about my struggles.
I’m trying to get more okay with speaking up. I hate asserting myself at the best of times, but have tended to find it easier with people I don’t have a deep connection with, because the emotions aren’t in play in the same way. I expressed something to one of my best friends recently; it was hard but necessary. I always fear that expressing to someone close to me that they’ve upset me will scare them away, but my friend’s understanding response affirmed my decision to do it.
I used to find it extremely difficult to verbalise things to people I consider friends. I could easily text them to say I appreciate them, but I couldn’t say it. That awkwardness is a lot less than it used to be.
I’m less likely to subscribe to social norms which can’t really be explained. Unmasking means I don’t speak at all unless I consider myself to have something worth saying.
Focusing on how I feel and not what others think I should feel. This particularly came to mind when it came to identifying my friendships and what my needs are surrounding those. People may label their friend group into casual friends, close friends, work friends and so forth. Personally, I find that overwhelming and confusing.
I now just have friends and acquaintances—the friends being those I keep close. Quality over quantity. I have also realised that I have the tendency to misplace my emotional energy. The split between friends and acquaintances in terms of where my emotional energy goes may be something like 60/40 currently, when it should be higher in the favour of my friends.
There are little bits of decluttering that have made life easier for me. On my computer desk, I had placed a mini chest of drawers. It was extremely annoying to open as my keyboard would be in the way. I got rid of it, and it has given my desk a lot more breathing space.
I have realised that I dislike doing some things on my own. I am okay with going for a walk or shopping on my own. I am less comfortable with undertaking a big activity such as attending a concert on my own. Even though I know I can do these things alone, I feel vulnerable and unsafe. The vulnerability is to do with my ability to get very flustered when addressed by a stranger in public unexpectedly. It’s something I want to get better at in general: thinking on my feet and not have to agonise over what to say.
Unmasking is something I am coming to terms with, but having an environment within which I can feel safe and be myself helps significantly with that. As things stand, it’s a lifetime of damage that needs reversing.