Written in December 2022
If you're unfamiliar with the term “masking”, the idea of unmasking won't make any sense, so we'll start off with a short dictionary session.
What is masking?
Masking is the process by which autistic (and otherwise neurodivergent) people suppress or hide their ND traits in order to “pass” or blend in with wider society. Many of us prefer the term “camouflaging” because it sounds less sinister – the term masking often implies to neurotypical people that we're being deceitful when actually masking (or camouflaging) is about survival.
Not masking leads to bullying, mistreatment, not being believed or taken seriously and losing out on opportunities as well as losing out on things most people take for granted, like being believed by doctors, or being able to make it round a supermarket shop without people pointing and laughing.
Some autistic people can mask very well, to the point where even we don't know we're autistic until much later in life. Some of us can mask a bit when we need to, and other autistic people can't mask much at all. These are the people that society recognises as autistic because their autistic traits are clear and on show for all to see. Unfortunately these autistic people also experience bullying, isolation, severe anxiety and loss of opportunities due to not masking.
Why do we mask?
Masking is almost required in order to participate in “normal” society. If we want to hold down a job we need to mask socially, in order to fit in with our co-workers, and we may need to mask sensory discomfort due to noise, lights, uniform textures or a whole host of other potential sensory hells. We need to mask at work, in relationships, with family, with friends, and with strangers (including medical professionals, estate agents, shop assistants, mechanics etc.).
We often also have a variety of different masks (or they might be personas – I often use the term “hat” to describe my different masks or modes) for different situations. These personas, or different masks, have been developed and fine-tuned to create the best possible outcome for me in a variety of social situations. Sometimes it is appropriate to be assertive, at other times it is not. Sometimes it is OK to accept and absorb negative emotions for the benefit of managing conflict between people, and sometimes it's a terrible idea, so each persona/hat is adapted to fit the situation I am in.
Why is masking problematic?
Masking comes with a lot of problems. The main one (and the reason many autistic people want to unmask) is that we end up with a very poorly developed sense of self. We don't know who we are, because we have to pretend to be a lot of different people in order to cope with changing social situations and survive in life. I remember saying, many years before diagnosis, that when I eventually got soft-excluded from a social group that “I can't cope with having to reinvent myself again just to fit in”.
This lack of internal sense of self is a major cause of poor mental health and poor self esteem. It also makes working on ourselves and having successful therapy for mental health problems difficult because we don't have a sense of self and worth to build on. It's one of the reasons I'd caution autistic people against having counselling designed for neurotypical people because it just doesn't work on us. CBT especially can be harmful for autistic people because it's essentially gaslighting us into ignoring our sensory needs, but that's another article...
So the answer is unmasking?
Yes, and no. Unmasking can help to a certain extent, if that unmasking is done with the intent to allow ourselves to be more authentically autistic – more authentically who we really are. Things like deciding not to deal with in-store grocery shopping, or allowing ourselves to stim openly (when we might once have suppressed it out of fear or embarrassment), or wearing hats/sunglasses/earplugs to deal with certain sensory inputs are all positive examples of unmasking.
When unmasking can be dangerous is when we try to strip away all the parts of the mask (or multiple masks and personas) at once because taking all of this away leaves us with no sense of self. That's right, masking gives us a poor sense of self and that's a problem, but unmasking leaves us with no sense of self, which is another problem. This is why I say unmasking can be a good idea in some ways, and a bad idea in others.
Removing all layers and aspects of our mask needs to be done very gradually, and with the expectation that we'll actually just build ourselves another “mask”, or persona, but that this one will be the real version of ourselves. Some aspects of our mask will involve the things we like and the ways we like to spend our time. Sometimes we pretend to like things in order to get along with people, so it's positive to strip out the personality trait that pretends to like sport (or whatever), but not positive to strip out everything we spend time doing. It's more a case of being very very picky about what is really us (which gets to remain as part of our natural persona) and what's just a veneer for survival (which is part of the inauthentic mask).
My unmasking experience
I have tried unmasking in social situations, and what happened was that I was unable to interact with the people or person around me. I need some layer of the mask, in order to effect all the communication that is required when around other people. When I am alone and don't have to interact with anyone, I can remove that layer of the mask completely without issue. I do need to keep it accessible, however, because I need the communication module to deal with everyday life. It is harder for me now to instantly access this mask module, because I have been able to remove it completely. It was easier for me to task-switch and follow conversations when I had this mask on permanently, but the downside was that I would often become overstimulated.
This process of working out who I am has required removing the parts of the mask that rest on the opinions of others. If we are still worried about what people will think of us, whether they will approve of our interests and hobbies, or communication style, then we'll just create another inauthentic mask.
I must point out that there's a subtle difference in caring what people think, and caring what people think when it affects you personally. I don't care what other people think or whether they approve of me as long as it doesn't cause me a problem. If someone's going to mistreat me because of their personal opinion of me, then I do care what they think because it impacts me directly.
To mask or not to mask?
Should autistic people mask? Should we all try to unmask? I can't answer that for anyone other than myself, because it really depends on the specific situation someone is in, their ability to mask, the impact that has on them mentally (masking can be exhausting and as I said, really impacts on someone's self-knowledge and self-worth). I think it's good to examine the mask(s) and remove things that aren't authentically you, but retain the bits that really are part of who you are. Instead of “unmasking”, we're building a new, permanent mask that reflects our personality and who we really are, but which also gives us the benefits (of being treated like a human being) that masking brings.
I don't think it's right that we should have to mask as a “normal” person in order to be treated decently, but sadly I don't make the social rules and I don't have any say in how the world works. I do have to live in it, though, and using masking techniques is how I do it.