A post in which I write about late autism diagnosis and masking. I speak only for myself (as ever). Some autistics are not able to mask, and others may not unmask in the ways I describe.
I’m more than a little wary of making an analogy between the unmasking process in adult autism, and addiction. It’s not the same thing at all – and yet the demands to perform neurotypicality are both toxic and habitual (by societal demand).
The journey of becoming more myself (as an autistic person) is one of awareness and self-discipline. A diagnosis of autism has meant I’ve had to identify the deep run socialisation that goes counter to my neurology. This essentially means learning to stop using the camouflage strategies that have helped me survive in the social world.
Tuning in to others, adapting and moulding ourselves to their perceived needs is indeed survival mode behaviour, which has been called masking. You can imagine how tiring it is to maintain this over time, and why recovery periods are needed. The concentration and adrenalin needed to get through certain situations can be tantamount to sitting an exam.
One especially heinous side effect is that you can lose all sense of yourself. It seems that imitation lies at the core of this adaptive behaviour, and inhabiting other personas can (in my experience) leave you feeling hungover and disorientated for days to come.
But what happens when you begin to unpick this learned behaviour? What happens when you stop shape-shifting because you’ve understood how much it’s harming you?
This is a gradual process (in my view) which also ebbs and flows. There are still many occasions where masking is required. I still slip it on unconsciously at times, but with a growing sense of awareness.
I’m learning all about giving up masking right now, as I’m full tilt on a project and simply can’t combine this level of focus with successful masking. My project burns away at the waxy candle ends of my mind at 3am most days. I have a tight deadline, and I need to apply new skills. I revel in every moment of it.
Sure I’m in a tight spot and I don’t enjoy the insomnia, but I’m stretching my mind and can wallow in the glory that is hyper-focus!
It just means I can’t pay much attention to social niceties, and so I’ve gone monosyllabic. Social media stretches like chewing gum before my eyes. I’ve started to cancel appointments.
Yet I find that I like myself more and am increasingly more content.
Who knew that a smily face or hand clapping emojis could be such incredibly satisfying shorthand? Bless their makers, for they say everything you need when you don’t have the time or resources to mask. I find, for example, that I most enjoy leaving a one word comment these days or a quick social nod with a like.
It makes me feel solid and good.
Concision is a new find in my social lexicon. Just say less!
This perhaps should not come as lightbulb discovery so late in life, but when you’re socialised to be a pleaser you tend to provide substantial amounts of social glue.
But unmasking means changing habits and changing thought patterns too. Unmasking means I can begin to find my own contours and stay me shaped for longer. This makes it easier to locate myself if I have to mask. I can recover more quickly too.
There are still major obstacles to overcome, but this is new. This is revolutionary!