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31 Mar 2023

Unmasking And Detraumatising Autism In Me

“To mask means to hide or disguise parts of oneself in order to better fit in with those around you. It is an unconscious strategy all humans develop whilst growing up in order to connect with those around us. However, for us autistic folk the strategy is often much more ingrained and harmful to our well-being and health. Because our social norms are different to others around us, we often experience greater pressure to hide our true selves and to fit into that non-autistic culture.” 

‘Autistic people and masking’ - Dr. Hannah Belcher 


I didn’t know what fully unmasked autism looked like until recently when I saw a TikTik of a doctor talking about being raised in a way where she did not ever have to attach trauma to her autistic identity. Her parents were aware of her neurodiversity from a young age and sought out settings for her that were pro-autistic, this gave her the opportunity to flourish. She told her story knowing her experience of de-traumatised autism is not typical for people like us, and as an example of autistic capabilities when encouraged to be different instead of being made to fit a neurotypical archetype. Her story made me reflect on the process of de-traumatising autism I have been practicing as an adult, and how beneficial unmasking my own mind has been for me later in life.

If the state of being unmasked and fully autistic is so beneficial, maybe the obvious question a neurotypical would ask is: why mask at all? I have spent my life being told who I am is wrong, I think too logically, I speak using unnecessarily big words, I’m either not present enough or dominating the discussion with my viewpoints, I listen to the same songs repeatedly too much, my niche interests are boring to hear about, I could continue but you get the point. Masking is the price I pay to be liked because I learned that who I am is unlikeable. 


“Though masking is incredibly taxing and causes us a lot of existential turmoil, it’s rewarded and facilitated by neurotypical people. Masking makes Autistic people easier to deal with. It renders us compliant and quiet. It also traps us.”

‘Unmasking Autism’ - Dr. Devon Price


But masking comes at a cost, the more I pretend to be something I am not the more stressed I become, and the more stressed I become the less I function. To be a better version of myself I have to unmask my own autism and de-traumatize my identity actively, but unlearning the shame instilled into me by a non-autistic society is far easier said than done. 


De-traumatising and unmasking autism

Feeling okay with a version of myself that I was conditioned to deem as inherently unlikable from the moment I had conscious thought is a tall ask. We are all programmed into reifying structural inequalities through subversive yet pervasive culturally programmed biases, amongst the most well-intentioned loved ones, and even in the self, that bias remains. Understanding that I have and will continue to experience a lot of negative bias that isn’t my fault is the starting point for unmasking: to believe that my brain isn’t wired incorrectly despite the constant feedback suggesting otherwise, I had to begin to understand that the fabric of society is neurotypical and I am not, and I am not to blame for that. 


“Before we examine our masks and learn to take them off, we must first recognize that the version of ourselves we’ve been hiding from the world is somebody we can trust.”

‘Unmasking Autism’ - Dr. Devon Price


Structurally and ideologically my neurotype is misunderstood and subjugated in the world around me. Coming to terms with this made me aware of the responsibility I have to reconceive myself: I’m not broken, society doesn’t include me, therefore the onus of inclusion, compassion, and care for me falls on me. In order to detach trauma from my sense of self I have to be my own advocate rather than let the inner critics bestowed to me dominate my thoughts. I have become much better at practicing this now, but there are particularly stressful moments when my resolve is lessened and it’s easier to get incredibly down on myself rather than see a more balanced and nuanced picture. But that’s okay, actively de-traumatising my sense of self means that those moments don’t last as long or hurt as much, I’m able to care for myself now in ways that I couldn’t before. 


Accepting my own mind with others 

But of course, no person should have to be their own sole source of care. A part of self-advocacy is creating and seeking out environments where I am not doing everything alone but can rely on others to accept and help me on my journey. 

I’ve found that accepting my neurodiverse self has meant finding and creating those settings where I’m able to unmask and flourish as an adult, just as the parents of the young doctor on TikTok did for her as a child. For me, that meant insisting that I wanted to be assessed for autism after experiencing the pattern of misdiagnosis and subsequent mishandling of neurodiversity that is common among queer autistics of colour. After this, I could more confidently access resources made to help me understand my neurotype’s needs and the ways I could ask for my needs to be met, and knowing these things means I am now better at finding people with whom those needs can be facilitated. 


“Refusing to perform neurotypicality is a revolutionary act of disability justice. It's also a radical act of self-love.”

‘Unmasking Autism’ - Dr. Devon Price


A big part of self-love is choosing the right environments for my health and growth, environments where I can be loved as well as love myself and love others. Realistically, practicing a ‘revolutionary act’ like existing unmasked isn’t easy because of the pressure to conform to neurotypicality, so the right settings for this become key. At work, that means finding organizational cultures that are proactive about reasonable adjustments for neurodiverse staff, being inclusive of my working style makes me happier and more productive, and that’s beneficial for everyone involved. I apply the same logic to personal relationships, some people are more willing to hear diversity of thought, and to also have conversations about how our relationship can facilitate each other's individual needs better, while other people are less inclined to make an effort to be inclusive of differences. 

In those places open to adjustment and with those inclusive people I find a lot of worth, belonging, and companionship. I am weird, so what? To live unmasked makes me happy, and yes it can make some people view me with a significant degree of uncertainty, but that’s okay because maybe they just aren’t my people.

Written by Almaas Bokhari, Process Team Leader

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