Unmasking Autism: Understanding the role of masking.

In our last article, Tonie and Jean-Julien answered questions about how to respond if someone discloses that they are autistic and advice on avoiding assumptions and stereotyping. The discussion then progressed to masking and what role masking plays in understanding and being aware of someone’s identity. Jean-Julien and Tonie shared their personal experiences with masking:

Jean-Julien: In the context of a late diagnosis, there’s a striking reality: We’ve successfully navigated a world that may not necessarily have been easy to discover for a person whose neurological development was not standard.

Masking has some advantages because it allows you to protect yourself, but there’s also a downside to that protection. Anything that can ultimately reduce masking will benefit each individual in any relationship.

Masking isn’t a deliberate intention to be dishonest or to hide things; it’s just a way of surviving in a less obvious environment for us to understand. So, it’s something to be aware of.

The idea is to blend in a little, not attract too much attention, and continue developing and functioning. I’ve managed to do that with varying degrees of success over the years, but there comes a time when you must pay the price. Masking or camouflage is very demanding and requires a lot of energy.

I think the persistence of bias and fantasies about what an autistic person looks like can also explain why sometimes there are harmful or misleading diagnoses. I think I’ve experienced that too – we’re not sick. It’s not an illness. It’s just something that requires more effort on our part. I think that for women, this posture of camouflage is even more demanding than for men.

But it’s a reality shared by both men and women.


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Tonie and Jean-Julien discuss the realities and effects of masking.

Tonie: I’d like to share my personal experience as a highly masking or historically highly masking autistic person in that I was 30 years old when I was diagnosed, so I had spent 30 years being autistic, not knowing I was autistic, needing to cope survive in a world that saw my mask and saw maybe at some point some of my challenges or places that struggled or the differences that  I had in communication or social interactions. They were likely more evident when I was much younger, but over time, and this is where a gendered lens is also critical: girls and women tend to have sort of additional social demands as children. And because of that, my own experience has been that I learned some pretty incredible skills around communication, but also learned some excellent masking skills in that I was able to camouflage and hide my autistic traits for quite some time.

I also had to learn how to compensate for things that challenged me instead of getting support. Even in the workplace, I have worked in the pan- disabilities community for over 10 years and worked with autistic people but did not see myself among them. A lot of my perception had to do with the fact that the folks that I was working with didn’t look like me and didn’t share a gendered experience that I had. Then I started meeting some autistic women and started seeing that my masking looked a lot like other autistic women’s masking. That really helped me understand my experience.

I don’t know where the mask ends and where I start.

I was going through cycles of burnout, not realizing why I was going through cycles of burnout, and once I was able to understand that I was engaging in masking on an ongoing basis, it started making sense why I was burning out all the time and why it just felt chronic, even though I was doing all of the self- care things we talk about.

But I was still struggling, and it wasn’t until I was able to identify places where I was masking and be able to feel safe enough to pull that back and start being myself, that, you know, I was able to battle that exhaustion and start breaking that cycle of breakout of burnout.

Coming to Auticon, before I knew about my neurodivergence, one of our autistic colleagues said to me, “I don’t know where the mask ends and where I start.” That has always sat with me and been something that I think a lot of autistic folks navigate. While we encourage creating environments where masking isn’t required, it’s also important to know that masking is a survival and coping mechanism. It keeps a lot of neurodivergent and specifically autistic people safe.

We talk to our clients and companies about what it means to create an inclusive and safe working environment. While masking is an independent and personal experience, creating environments where people feel safe choosing to unmask is crucial.

In our next article, we will explore differences in social communication.

In the meantime, you can watch the full webinar on-demand here.

Are you interested in learning more about how your organization can embrace and support neurodivergent talent? Contact us we will happily share how our hiring, coaching, and training services can help.

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