A nonbinary youth’s lived experience

The effects of “masking” your autism 

By Elliot Barker

Autism is a fairly common developmental disability that occurs in people of all ages. Even I have it! A well-known coping mechanism among people with autism is masking or camouflaging. It is used as a way of hiding or suppressing a person’s neurodivergent symptoms when in social situations or among peers, family members and others.

Let’s consider stimming, something I use to let out energy. Using masking to suppress my urge is, well, tiresome to say the least. For me, I stim through shaking my hands or pressing my fist into my face. This helps me shake off all the built-up energy. Shaking one’s hands is one of the most common forms, but there are many other ways to do it. 

So, what’s the big issue with masking?
Masking urges and symptoms can be very dangerous, and not just physically. Masking has, in a myriad of ways, negatively impacted my life at various times.

I started to mask once I got into kindergarten. I knew I had to start hiding my behaviour once I started to receive negative responses from peers when they saw me stimming or expressing my special interests. As I grew older, I was surrounded by the negative stereotypes of an autistic person because of social media so I masked. The “R” slur was being used as frequently as the class sharpener. 

Everyone would use it. 

Here are some of the many ways I’ve struggled to mask my symptoms at work, school, and home and how it’s affected my life:

I often mask to protect myself from the outside world. Whether it be masking my stimming or masking my trouble with maintaining eye contact, it helps protect me from being attacked just for being different. Bullying, self-image, and avoiding negative attention are just some of the reasons why I, and many others, choose to mask.

Depression: Yup, something that seems so commonplace can be extremely life altering. Depression can be caused by many different factors in someone’s life. My depression started up in June of 2020 because I felt like nobody loved me. A recent diagnosis of autism found me still coming to terms with the fact that I was different. It hurt a lot. So, I resorted to hiding it, even at home. That’s what caused my depression. 

For those of you unfamiliar, depression is a mental illness that can negatively impact you both physically and mentally. It’s one of the most common illnesses in the world, and it can worsen your mood and may lead to suicidal thoughts or actions. 

What about masking causes depression? Masking your symptoms can be very draining. Constantly aiming to fit into the crowd causes you to think of yourself differently compared to others. It can lead to poor self-esteem and to questioning of your self-worth.

Anxiety: I’ve struggled with anxiety since my early youth but as I didn’t find out I had autism until I was thirteen years old, I was always masking to fit in. This resulted in anxiety around the idea of people noticing how hard I was trying to fit in. Masking can cause severe anxiety because of the constant need to hide your true self and I was bothered by thoughts like; • What if people knew I was hiding my real self? • Others probably aren’t interested in my hyper fixation. • Why do I talk so much? • Why am I different compared to the others?

Low self-esteem: Once I found out I was autistic, my self-esteem dropped majorly. I no longer felt as though I was normal. Did most people see me negatively? Was I good enough in their eyes? Thoughts like these can sprout from a mental illness. 

Loss of self-esteem can also be easily caused when you feel the need to mask. Even when someone who is masking has a good reputation, they may feel like their real personality is not as adequate as the one they portray whilst masking. On the other hand, if a person who is masking is known to have some weird or quirky behaviours, they could feel bad about themselves and feel as if they are not doing a good enough job at masking, or they have been “found out.”

Low energy: It’s clear that masking is tiresome. I would hide my stims all day and try my best to hold eye contact, but it was torturous. I would be exhausted with the effort it took to maintain my mask of pretending to be someone else. By the end of the day, I was basically left with not enough energy to do anything at all. 

Forming new insecurities: I hate to say it, but for some people (like me), living with autism is their biggest insecurity. It’s why we mask, after all. When masking, you start thinking about and realizing what you’re hiding. Could it be your lack of social skills? Or perhaps it’s those so-called “weird” movements you make when you get excited or overwhelmed. 

But in truth, there is really nothing to be ashamed of. As a child, many other kids would not understand my behaviours, stare at me and ridicule my stimming. I wish they wouldn’t have commented or laughed. Wouldn’t have whispered in the other children’s ears. As it did in me, these interactions can cause insecurity and lead to more masking behaviours.

Avoiding the consequences
I’ve learned that I can still mask, but at the same time I see no reason to be ashamed of my autism. But it’s not just about me changing the way I think of my autism. It’s about communicating with neurotypical people and letting them know how they can best support me.  

And in turn, if you’re a neurotypical person, communicating with your autistic friends can really make them feel happier and included as well. 

Elliot Rose Barker is a Canadian writer diagnosed with autism and ADHD who brings awareness and provides others with the knowledge they need to thrive, regardless of their disability.

 

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