Stop Making Autistic People Mask
Being “weird” doesn’t hurt anyone, but pretending like we’re not different sure does.
TW: Suicide statistics.
Autism isn’t a disease, it’s a neurotype. A type of brain.
It’s got its drawbacks, that’s for sure, but it’s also got its perks. Just like neurotypical brains.
My brain is my brain, just as my thumb is my thumb. I can learn to treat my brain well to make it work better, and I can learn more effective ways to cope, but other than that—is what it is.
My brain cannot be “cured,” or turned neurotypical, and I sure as hell wouldn’t want it to be.
It is true that I struggle with living in our society due to sensory overwhelm, executive functioning issues, and being persistently misunderstood — but when my brain’s happy, I can also hyper-focus like a maniac, busting out great work in hours instead of days. I think “outside the box,” I am unique, I notice little things that others don’t, and I’m deeply passionate about my interests.
Autism is a part of who I am, just like being creative is part of who I am.
It cannot be removed, only hidden.
So, when people speak of “curing autism,” what they mean is the autistic person seems less autistic.
Autists who “seem cured” are pretending to be neurotypical in order to get by, something called masking. We do this because there are presently significant societal consequences for seeming autistic: people frequently make awful assumptions, tease us for being different, and presume that we’re inept.
As a result, those of us who are able to mask often do so. This involves mimicking others, endlessly practicing conversations in our heads/scripting safe things to say, and generally dampening our authentic expression — who we are — at every turn.
And while most people manage how they’re perceived to an extent, researchers describe masking in autistic people as “extremely effortful and challenging to one’s identity, unlike ordinary reputation management in typically developing individuals.”
And it’s often instinctive, an unconscious coping mechanism, so maskers often find ourselves having thoughts akin to, “Why on earth did I just say that?” further disorienting our relationship with the world, and with ourselves.
Experts have found that females are especially adept at masking, contributing to why the majority of diagnoses go to males. (There are also disparities in diagnosis rates by race.) Masking essentially entails the autistic person trying to act like a neurotypical, suppressing ourselves across the board — appearance, body posture/movement, how we speak, and what we say.
While masking can help autistic people fit in better, research shows that it’s awful for our neurological and mental health.
Masking and Neurological Health
As you might imagine, masking one’s neurology all day takes an enormous amount of energy. This can lead to debilitating fatigue and is often a factor in autistic burnout, which is a lot worse than it sounds.
For me, the worst of it feels like my brain has become useless — executive functioning issues become much worse and sensory and information processing goes kaput, rendering me unable to speak effectively, work, drive…really do anything but zone out in a dark room.
Autistic burnout is associated with negative impacts on one’s physical health, capacity for independent living, and quality of life; it’s linked with suicidal behavior, and it can last for weeks, or even longer.
Masking has also been found to lead to the experience of ‘thwarted belongingness,’ which, again, greatly increases the risk of suicide.
Suicidal ideation in autistic people is also estimated to be at 72%, autistic people are considered high-risk for suicide, and young people with autism have over twice the risk of dying from suicide compared to those without.
Because of these facts, insisting that an autistic person mask can literally be a matter of life and death.
Societal change in this regard will be a literal lifesaver.
Would it be so hard to just let us be weird?
In their TEDx talk, aptly titled “Everything You Know About Autism is Wrong,” autistic autism researcher Jac den Houting (they/them) says that getting their diagnosis didn’t lead to the grief one might expect after being diagnosed with a “disorder,” but great relief and even excitement, saying, “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” adding that after diagnosis their self-perception changed, “I wasn’t a failed neurotypical person, I was a perfectly good autistic person.”
This quote speaks to neurodiversity, the idea that all kinds of brains are fine and should be allowed to function at their best capacity; and autism acceptance, which allows for authentic autistic expression and enables us to be our best selves.
It doesn’t hurt to refrain from writing someone off as weird or lacking intelligence, because they move, speak, or think differently. (It might even enable folks to feel freer to express their own differences!)
And it’s not so hard to ask a follow-up question if someone says something that doesn’t quite click right.
In fact, it’s just four little words: “What do you mean,” it’s easy. There’s no need to assume the worst about someone’s intellect, character, or capability.
In the video, Den Houting also says we need a paradigm shift in relation to how autism is viewed — as something wrong, a flaw to be fixed.
Instead, we need to accept that neurotypical isn’t the right way to be, just because most folks are. We need to acknowledge that there are advantages to having a variety of neurotypes at play; diversity strengthens a species, and neurodiversity in humans is no exception.
The fact that our society expects autistic people to fake normal is ableist, and it’s killing us. We need to be allowed to be our authentic, autistic, selves. It is not okay to shame us for it.
Being autistic can be compared to an unsettling feeling often experienced when traveling somewhere very different from your home country, continuously feeling like you’re not doing things quite right and being looked at funny, “othered” for reasons you don’t quite understand.
We’re everywhere, so no matter where you are — we’re from there.
Can’t you just let us be part of the local flavor?