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How 'Unmasking' Leads To Freedom For Autistic And Other Neurodivergent People

An illustration shows a person surrounded by ears, eyes, a mouth, text and other symbols.
Masking is a common coping mechanism employed by autistic people in an attempt to fit into a neurotypical society. Examples of masking include forcing oneself to smile at the "appropriate" times, looking between someone's eyebrows instead of making uncomfortable eye contact, and suppressing stims like hand flapping, even though they're comforting.
(Megan Rhiannon for NPR)
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Roughly 2% of kids — or one in 44 children — is on the autism spectrum, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And that number is probably a conservative estimate.

One reason for this is "masking", which is, "basically taking some kind of attempt or employing some kind of strategy to hide your disability," says Devon Price, a social psychologist and author of Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity.

While masking is widely employed by many autistic people, for people in marginalized groups — including women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people — might feel even more compelled to camouflage their disability. A big reason for this is the fact that the diagnostic criteria for autism mostly had cisgender white and almost exclusively male children in mind.

"To this day, all of the assessments that we use for diagnosing autism, even in adults is still based on how to identify it in white cisgender boys, usually very young ones," Price explains. "So what that means is if you're, let's say, a young autistic black boy, you are far more likely to get diagnosed with something like oppositional, defiant disorder. You're more likely to be seen as a behavior problem."

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"If you're a girl, if you're a person of color, if you're gender nonconforming, you're more likely to be seen as a problem to be contained."

Price's book reveals how the world often forces and conditions autistic to suppress their autistic traits, using his experiences and those of others and explores how removing the mask can lead to autistic people living better and fuller lives. In a world that often forces autistic people into a box, Price offers an essential roadmap for autistic people to be themselves.

What is 'masking'?

Price says masking is an attempt to hide one's disability, but it's also a coping mechanism.

"Because you know that if you show your discomfort with eye contact, people will find you untrustworthy and treat you very differently," he said.

This manifests itself in two ways: camouflage and compensation. Camouflage includes everything from "faking a smile, faking eye contact by looking in the middle of someone's forehead," Price said.

This is where compensation comes in. Price does this, for example, through scheduling ghost meetings on his calendar to give himself time to recharge.

"And that's really what most masked autistics end up having to do because a lot of us receive social input, our whole lives, that there's something off about us," he said.

Price, who is transgender, compares it to how queer people are forced into a cisgender heterosexual world. Nobody chooses to be closeted, but they are born in the closet. In the same way, nobody chooses to wear a mask but is born with a mask.

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So if masking is so incredibly painful for autistic people, what steps can they take to unmask?

Unmasking starts with unlearning shame

Masking cannot exist without the overwhelming power of shame. Shame is what drives autistic people to feel that they are flawed, failed and broken. Price says he used to go into a bathroom and hit his arms and legs with a hairbrush during sensory meltdowns.

"And I used to think that was something that was so disgusting and creepy and shameful about myself – that I was that out of control," he said. Other autistic people manifest their shame through eating disorders, cutting themselves or substance abuse. In turn, Price said much of the process of writing his book was about unlearning his shame.

One tool is to go a day trying not to read the minds of other people and without apologizing for every action, especially since autistic people are afraid of saying the wrong thing and become hypervigilant.

"Give yourself permission to actually offend someone," he said. "Obviously, you don't want to go around saying offensive, hurtful things, but accept that you're not in control of other people's emotional reactions to you."

He also suggests laying out your home in a way that suits your own needs rather than in a way that pleases allistic–or non-autistic–people, citing a designer he interviewed in the book who changed the way he laid out his workspace.

"For him, unmasking was, 'No, I'm going to keep a bunch of fidget toys all over my desk, and I'm going to have a foam roller under my desk so that I can kind of fidget it with my feet during meetings. And I'm going to have a mess all over," Price says.

Allow yourself to experience passion again

The next step to unmasking, Price says, is to rekindle an old passion or find a new interest and experience complete joy around it.

"Most autistic people, we get the message from a really young age that we need to tone it down, that it's weird to be too excited and too enlivened by the things that we care about, which is so sad," he said.

Conversely, expressing joy can heal autistic people and get them back in touch with their true self.

"It can be hard to drop all your inhibitions, but joy and pleasure and sharing that joy with other people. It just does so much to relax us and form authentic connections and to actually feel like, 'Oh, life can be something I actually enjoy and look forward to every day.'"

And you don't need to do this alone. Community is crucial, Price says. He met people at anime, kink and furry conventions who found joy in being able to express themselves and find people like them. Incidentally, the more that some autistic people learn about themselves and what their neurotype means, the more they find comfort in the autistic community, whether in person or online.

Get to know who you really are by identifying your values

Because autistic people often spend their whole lives trying to fit into a specific societal mold, it can be easy to lose touch with who you really are or what is really important to you. One tool to get back in touch with yourself is called the Values-based Integration exercise. The exercise comes from Heather R. Morgan, an autistic life coach.

Price says you can start by identifying five moments when you felt fully alive and wondered if life could always be amazing.

"You just look through those memories and you see, 'What did these memories and moments have to say about what I actually value?'" Price said. The exercise then asks how autistic people's life is out of step with those values.

"And honestly, I think neurotypical people should do it too, because I think we all get out of touch with who we really are just from the grind of everyday life," he said.

How to be an ally and nurture a more inclusive world

Of course, all the unmasking in the world can't be done alone; it requires non-autistic people to be more inclusive and welcoming of their neurodivergent peers – whether they are autistic, have ADHD, Tourette's syndrome, dyslexia or anything else.

One way to be an ally is to communicate as clearly as possible and avoid turns of phrase, which can confuse autistic people. Similarly, it is important to be accepting of autistic behaviors that might deviate from the norm.

"If I'm safe flapping my hands down the street, so are people with schizophrenia or mobile disabilities," Price says. "It's a world that is safe for everyone and we broaden our definition of what is socially acceptable."

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