Lara Schaeffer

The Basics of Masking and Why Neurodivergent Individuals Should Be Encouraged to Stop

Neurodivergent masking is very important to gain a solid understanding of, both for neurodivergent individuals and for those who love them and interact with them regularly.

The majority of society is neurotypical, meaning they are not affected by a neurodivergent condition like ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), ADHD, Dyslexia or Tourette’s. Speaking from personal experience and having shared ideas with many neurodivergent people, I propose that people mask so that they can seem more like the neurotypical people that comprise this majority of society, at workplaces, schools, and elsewhere. After all, it is human nature not to want to stand out for the wrong reasons. And just as autism and other forms of neurodivergence appear in all sorts of ways for different people, masking is going to occur in all sorts of different ways for different people.

The societal majority follows innate instincts and social constructs which simply are not automatic for autistic people. That’s where the first component of masking comes in. It involves a person learning and mirroring the social behaviors of those around them. Masking can allow people to feel that they get by in this world where the unspoken rules of interaction do not come naturally or easily to them, but it also requires a great deal of deliberate effort.

At the same time, masking also involves people suppressing and hiding discomforts and reactions to unpleasant stimuli in the environment which can cause them great internal distress. Autistic people often come to mask these discomforts and times of distress when they grow to realize (or even just instinctively realize) that their natural reactions would be judged, perhaps harshly, by those around them.

Masking is completely invalidating to people who feel pressure do it, as these people can understandably grow to feel that their real, unmasking selves would not be accepted by others.

Yet importantly, some individuals who mask do so completely subconsciously—that is especially the case when an individual’s neurodivergence has not yet been discovered.

It’s crucial to also recognize that many people who are neurodivergent either choose not to mask or may be less able to do it, less able to hide their natural tendencies and reactions.

Masking is especially vital when looked at with respect to late-diagnosed autism (from six years old through adult). It can inhibit justified concerns about a young person’s development and social interactions from parents and/or educators and thus interfere with the student being referred for evaluation and potentially receiving a diagnosis of ASD. Masking also poses problems because it can cover up an autistic person’s real needs and challenges.

Discovering ASD when it is present is crucial to allowing individuals the opportunity to understand their personal differences and how those differences affect them. Discovery also allows individuals to make important modifications which could make a real difference in daily experience, curb stress and anxiety, and prevent co-occuring conditions like generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and eating disorders.

When I grew up in the seventies and eighties, only individuals with severe, visible challenges were evaluated for autism, and my mother and I had no clue that autism applied to me. I stifled elements of my nature and personality that I could tell were received negatively by others, but in my youthful innocence I simply figured that was what everyone did. Through trial and error and a constant reevaluation of social interactions and encounters, I molded my social persona to more or less fit that of neurotypical people. Without any conscious choice, I became “high-masking,” and many people would not be able to tell I am autistic if I don’t make them aware.

The problem with masking is that it is emotionally, physically, and psychologically exhausting to the person doing it. Many people with ASD come home after a period of time interacting with neurotypical people and must recover, often by spending time alone without the bombardment of the social and environmental stimuli they had been exposed to. The more demanding the day had been, for instance with more than the usual number of noise disturbances or more than a typical number of times being misunderstood or found in the middle of communication misunderstandings, the more the time the person typically will need to recover.

Since my ASD diagnosis three years ago, I have reduced the frequency of occasions where I am uncomfortable or exposed to sensory stimuli which are especially difficult for me. I have also made those close to me aware of my diagnosis so that when I am in greater need of understanding I feel comfortable accepting it, and when I need time apart from damaging stimuli I feel comfortable taking it. Those steps are the future of a society which accepts neurodiversity and does not view neurodivergence as a burden or liability. The changes I have made have brought a palpable difference to my life and to my quality of life.

Another issue facing people who are good at masking are the inevitable times when our abilities to mask will break down or be impeded. At times of greater stress, or when we are not feeling well physically, elements of the day that we might usually able to mask right through might suddenly be too much. This situation can cause a potentially intense reaction from an autistic person to social or sensory stimuli that they usually are able to handle only because of masking—at these times, because our response is not usual for us, our challenges are all the more apparent to others and could be judged even more harshly than if the person never masked at all.

Neurodivergent individuals should be encouraged to mask less or not at all given how damaging it is to them. Being societally accepting of neurodivergence would allow that to happen…people would feel less pressure to participate in social interactions or conventions that make them uncomfortable, and they would also feel better able to make their sensory sensitivities and discomforts known so that they experience stress and overload less frequently.

Neurodivergent people face great obstacles in living a life where they interact regularly with neurotypical people. We participate in social constructs that are uncomfortable and suppress intense reactions to stimuli, and it’s all done dozens and dozens of times in a day, day in and day out, which makes a life interacting with neurotypicals incredibly taxing. A future of societal acceptance of neurodiversity would mean not only a safer, healthier life for those who are neurodivergent, it would also allow society to better benefit from the many gifts those who are neurodivergent stand to offer.

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