Autistic and Other ND Masking

Content/trigger warning: mention of murder by police, discussion of ableism

I’m so fucking tired.

I actually have an accomodation at work that allows me to turn my Zoom camera off whenever I want. This is because performing neuronormative facial expressions is fucking exhausting and I can’t do it for long. Performing neuronormative facial expressions is a part of what Autistic people call “masking,” which is a word for “pretending to be neurotypical.” Not all Autistic people are able to mask, and masking has recently become something of a hot topic on Autistic Twitter and TikTok. Despite being neck deep in the online Autistic community, I’m only just becoming familiar with masking and how I mask. I mean, during Zoom meetings, I still have to modulate my vocal cadences to sound neurotypical even with my camera off, and I only realized when writing this blog entry that that was a form of masking. Other forms of Autistic masking can include:

-Suppressing stimming
-Forcing eye contact
-Standing differently/mimicking neurotypical body language
-Learning and following social scripts, some or all of which may not align with actual views
-Using pre-prepared jokes or phrases
-Engaging in popular activities, especially social ones, that we don’t want to engage in
-Refraining from infodumping

Honestly, learning some of what constitutes masking made me a little bit surprised at how much I mask. And it makes me wonder if masking so much is why I’m so fucking exhausted all the fucking time. Because what happens when you force an Autistic person to mask?

Exhaustion.

Meltdowns.

Burnout.

Masking is hell. It’s draining. It’s concealing the essence of who you are. It’s like expecting a person to hack off parts of themselves in order to fit into a designated space. And yet it wasn’t even widely discussed enough for a lot of Autistic people (HI) to know what the fuck it was until recently. We destroy ourselves in the name of ablenormativity and I’d be willing to bet most psychologists wouldn’t know what I was talking about if I tried to talk with them about “Autistic masking.”

You might be thinking “it sounds like society forces Autistic people to mask.” If you’re not thinking that, you should be. Masking is a safety issue, especially if you’re also part of a different marginalized group that’s at higher risk of, say, having the police called on you (and then being subsequently murdered) for acting “strange.”

Also, while masking is primarily discussed in relation to Autistic people, we’re not the only neurodivergent people who mask. I would say that any neurodivergent person suppressing themselves in order to appear neurotypical is masking. For example, an ADHDer who was masking might:

-Suppress stims/fidgets
-Get good grades through good memory despite poor organizational and study skills
-Overcompensate/try harder at tasks and activities to make up for developmental difficulties
-Joke or kid about ADHD-related mistakes
-Pretend to be incompetent to avoid high expectations
-Conceal that they’re experiencing RSD

I could continue making lists for how different neurodivergencies are usually masked, but we’d be here all day.

There also are a lot of conversations around masking that I don’t want to get into. Or at least, there are two conversations around masking that I don’t want to get into. These two conversations are:

  1. Autistic women and girls mask more than Autistic men and boys because women and girls are expected to be more pacifying and unobtrusive
  2. Whether or not being able to mask is a privilege

The first conversation often erases non-binary people and involves second-wave bullshit about being ~*~socialized female~*~ and I, a cis binary woman, am not qualified to address that particular stripe of bullshit. As for the second conversation, having been in situations when I was able vs. unable to mask, it mystifies me that there’s even a debate here. Of course being able to mask is a privilege. The fact that masking sucks to the degree that it leads to mental health breakdowns doesn’t mean it’s not a privilege to be safer and treated better than Autistic people who can’t mask. (And no, able to mask vs. unable to mask isn’t in any way the new “high functioning vs. low functioning,” don’t @ me.) But that’s not what I want to focus on here; I’m trying to give more general information about masking, not drop hot takes.

So what do we do about masking? At some point during the arc of me keeping this blog (it’s been over FOUR YEARS!? WHAT!?), I would have said “Take the mask off! Be yourself! That’s the only way to normalize Autistic behavior!”

Yeah, past self? That’s not fucking safe. Dismantling ableism is the name of the game, of course, but ableism is a structural issue that is inextricable from other forms of oppression. Actually, I don’t think I’ve shared the updated definition of ableism with my readers! This is the latest definition of ableism, modified this year, from activist Talila “TL” Lewis:

“Ableism: A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normality, intelligence, excellence, desirability, and productivity. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism.

“This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on a person’s language, appearance, religion, and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel, and ‘behave.’”

So unmasking is not going to pull out the evil ableism tree at its roots; it might only pull off some of the leaves, or it might backfire spectacularly and put someone in danger. Do I want a society in which nobody has to mask? Absofuckinglutely. Do I think we should take off our masks whenever possible, because masking is so detrimental to health and well-being? Yes. Do I think that we should stay masked when it isn’t safe to unmask? Until the revolution, sadly, yes.

Hey, it’s complicated.

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Cringe Culture Is Neurotypicalist

Content/trigger warning: ABA, ableism (especially extreme autmisia), neurotypicalism

I write fanfiction.

No, I’m not giving you my LJ (yes, I’m that old) or ff.net or AO3 name. But I write fanfiction. I have written fanfiction since the age of four, when I saw The Lion King and immediately wrote fix fic to rectify Mufasa’s death. I had an OC, Kelsey the Good (read: was exclusively a scavenger and did not present a threat to living lion cubs) Hyena, who saved Simba from drowning in a river. Yeah, Kelsey was a self-insert to the degree that I thought of myself as Kelsey. I used to picture myself as a bipedal hyena walking into my kindergarten class. As recently as…well…now, while I don’t write self-inserts anymore, I still write fanfiction about characters that I over-identify with.

The kids these days call this kind of thing “cringe.”

SuperWhoLocks (fans of Supernatural, Doctor Who, and Sherlock) have been a fairly recent target of being called “cringe.” People who are enthusiastically fannish about their favorite TV show are often called “cringe,” especially if their favorite show is nerdy—have you ever heard someone say it’s “cringe” that grown zedcishet Statesian men are obsessed with football?—and especially if they’re high school age or older.

Stop me if you get where I’m going with this.

Actually, don’t, because this is a blog entry and you literally are unable to stop me from writing unless you have a TARDIS to go back in time and slap my hands away from my keyboard. A high schooler being obsessively interested in something the mainstream considers silly and unpopular…what does that sound like?

By chance, does that sound like an Autistic person with a special interest that’s considered “developmentally inappropriate”? Or an ADHDer with a hyperfixation? Or a person with depression engaging in escapism?

Now do you get where I’m going with this?

Despite or perhaps because of the fact that “cringey” interests tend to be those of ND people–and sometimes the neurotypicalism is more overt (i.e., calling hand spinners “cringe”)–douchezeppelins seem to think that shaming people with these interests is going to somehow help them. Apparently, said douchezeppelins think that shaming people will make them realize that they’re being “socially inappropriate” and that they need to “grow up” or whatever complete bullshit excuse they have for bullying. The bullying involved in cringe culture is not only condoned, it is celebrated. If I may quote a popular Tumblr post about cringe culture, “[fans] are degenerates that deserve to be shamed and we absolutley (sic) need cringe culture.”

Look, behavior shaming is just bullying, and if you are bullying someone for liking a thing, you’re being an absolute shitheel. I shouldn’t have to say that cringe culture is neurotypicalist to get people to stop bullying, but I’ve seen Autistic disability justice advocates say that cringe culture is crowdsourced ABA, and I agree with that to some degree, so let me go into that more.

ABA, or applied behavior analysis, is an abusive practice in psychiatry that is a form of conversion therapy to force Autistic people to act allistic. ABA often uses aversives such as forcing Autistic children to taste Tabasco sauce, and the actual techniques for ABA were based on dog training. ABA misunderstands Autisticness; it is based on the idea that Autisticness is a behavioral disorder and not a neurotype. The inventor of ABA, Ivar Lovaas, has said “Autistic children are severely disturbed…You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have a person in the physical sense—they have hair, a nose and a mouth—but they are not people in the psychological sense. One way to look at the job of helping autistic kids is to see it as a matter of constructing a person. You have the raw materials, but l you (sic) have to build the person.”

So the tl;dr of ABA is that it’s an abusive practice that is aimed at forcing Autistic people to behave in a way that is palatable to NTs. While it isn’t only Autistic people who are targeted by cringe culture and its neurotypicalist bullying, I agree that cringe culture is an abusive practice aimed at forcing neurodivergent people to behave in a way that is palatable to NTs. I don’t think cringe culture shares the impressive rate of producing PTSD in ND people the way ABA does in Autistic people (yes, really https://neurodiversityconnects.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/PTSD.ABA_.pdf), but bullying is certainly traumatic. Cringe culture is socially sanctioned abuse that primarily targets neurodivergent people, and if you see someone on the Internet who still plays Undertale or who writes self-insert Pokemon fanfiction or who draws Bowsette fanart or what the fuck ever, please, let them enjoy things.