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  • Meredith

Becoming Myself: How Knowing I Am Autistic Helps Me Take Off My Mask

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

As we’ve all experienced in the past few years, wearing a mask can feel frustrating and suffocating. You can’t breathe properly. Other people can’t see you fully. It feels restrictive. However, they supposedly keep you and others safe. This can be true - to an extent. Masks enable us to act in a role that attempts to ensure we are accepted and 'successful' socially, at school/ work and in relationships. There are many roles we can assume.

The mask I am referring to in this post is the one of acting/ conforming to conventional (neurotypical) social rules, communication and behaviour.


Our ableist society prefers people who can 'function' in neurotypical ways. There has been no other societal option presented.


From a very young age, I saw the kind of behaviour that was expected of me. The kind that would enable me to fit in, feel accepted and not be told off. I learnt quickly to suppress anything else, and to keep that reserved for the privacy of the dysfunctional family I grew up in. One of the benefits of my particular dysfunctional family was that weirdness was normal. There, I was still able to express my quirks, stims and indulge my interests.


The cost


However, when you feel like you can't take off the masks you wear to breathe fully, or you are reluctant to because you don't know who you are underneath the masks or how others may respond when you take them off, they become limiting and can be costly to our body, mind and soul. We can be left not knowing who we really are or how to let others know the real us. We can be left with a frustrating sense that we are inhibiting our true, unique, beautiful selves.


The cover-up


Until recently, I wasn’t fully aware of the mask I wore to cover up being autistic and having ADHD (or AuDHD, as it is commonly known in the online autistic communities* that I know frequent often to learn more about myself). This mask covered up my confusion over social and conversational rules, my social anxiety, as well as my executive functioning and sensory challenges. I studied others to see how I should interact in each social setting (work and social life), how I should be behaving and what I should be saying. I pretended I felt fine in school, university and work environments when really I mostly had intense stomach aches and was barely coping with the sensory and social challenges. It was exhausting, but wearing the mask was the only thing I knew to do to get on in a world built for neurotypical people.


A sense of shame


I realise it was shame that kept me tied to my mask and my mask tied on tightly. I experienced a fear of revealing the difficulties and confusion I experienced, and that I would be rejected if I said the wrong thing, seemed weird, or odd, that I sometimes took longer to process what had been said or if others knew how challenging I found it just to exist in this society.


Saddest of all, it prevented me from feeling I could show my true self to others and to the world. I now know that I am a bright, bold, deep, passionate, strong, powerful, caring, adventurous, articulate, introspective, poetic, nurturing and creative soul with much to offer the world, but my gifts, skills and talents got lost in a world that values a neurotypical way of being.


Revelation and relief


Since realising I am autistic and that most of my family members are too, and since learning about autism being a difference (in brain wiring) not a disorder, I am getting to know the gifts as well as the challenges and exploring what it feels like to be much more compassionate with myself for the challenges I experience in daily life. Although it can still feel vulnerable, I am now more willing to advocate for myself and ask for accommodations or support from others.


More recently I have experienced glimpses of the freedom that comes with shaking off the straight-jacket of shame I wore around feeling different and being myself in all my quirks, challenges and difference. I recognise the people I feel safe enough to fully be myself around. I am even beginning to feel proud of my difference and hear myself say aloud: "I am autistic."


Respect and self-care


These days I have much more respect for my difference and the fact that self-care looks different for me than it might for neurotypical people. I need more processing time after social interaction, more rest and more sleep. I often speak without making eye contact. I have noise and smell sensitivities. My menstrual cycle can feel more extreme and be more debilitating. I have many executive functioning challenges. I can become non-verbal when I am very tired or overwhelmed. I am far more susceptible to burnout.


Yet I am now also in touch with the strengths and positive aspects of being autistic.

I have a deep connection to and appreciation of animals and nature (this has often felt the place where I am not judged and I am free to be myself). I am deeply sensitive, intuitive and empathic. I have a sensitivity to music that often makes me cry with joy. When I take care of myself, my inner world is mostly a joyful, bright and inspiring one, full of creative ideas.


Authentic connections


I now realise that the mask also kept people out, preventing them from getting to know the real me that was hidden underneath. In those moments of being brave enough to be myself, I offer others the chance to connect with me in a more real way and this enables a far more authentic connection between us.


Freeeeeeedom


I am now less frozen. I feel more free. I am grateful for the mask I developed that kept me safe, but I can now breathe more easily knowing I can take it off and be me.


*I am eternally grateful to the online communities, pockets of support, resources, content creators, information and education that now exists that has enabled me to to learn about and begin to accept myself in all my neurodivergent glory).



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