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:
-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?
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:
-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:
- Autistic women and girls mask more than Autistic men and boys because women and girls are expected to be more pacifying and unobtrusive
- 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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