Story 11: Learning how to unmask autism to find my identity

By Cassidy . G (@autism_unmasked)

Masking enables autistic individuals to mimic neurotypical behaviours in social situations, whilst simultaneously hiding behaviours that are seen to be ‘unacceptable’. For people ‘on the spectrum’ masking is extremely common- it allows us to socialise with others and handle difficult social situations without the worry that someone will treat us differently. Many autistic people have masked their whole lives, to the point where they struggle to unmask, and that is what my story is about.

I haven’t always masked- in primary school I had no need. In many was I acted differently to my friends, but it was always accepted and I was lucky enough that nobody ever treated me differently because of it. I would stim, info-dump about my special interests, and cry when I got overwhelmed, all without the worry of being bullied or judged by my peers. It was a very small primary school, with less than 200 children overall, so being myself had always come easily to me. 

When I got to secondary school, everything changed. My best friend, who I had known since the age of four, moved away to Scotland, leaving me all alone in a new school. For the first time, I had to learn to make entirely new friends. I started noticing that people would laugh at me when I took too long to understand a joke, and that people called me ‘weird’ because I didn’t look into their eyes when I spoke to them. This was when I started masking.

It was apparent that my previous method of just being myself simply would not fly here.  When I did manage to make my first friend at this school, it was because I had decided that since my own personality clearly wasn’t working, I would adopt the persona of my favourite character at the time- Cat Valentine from Victorious. Now, when I didn’t understand sarcasm, or a joke went over my head, it was just brushed off because I was “dumb” and “an airhead”.

In this light, masking was really beneficial, so I started playing into this more. Being the ‘dumb’ friend meant that nobody noticed when I missed social cues, and this became a shield that I would hide behind for years to come. 

Slowly, masking became easier, and I eventually reached a point where I was able to adapt my mask to who I was with at the time. For example, in school I was the ‘quiet’ girl at the back of the class, with friends I was the ‘ditzy airhead’ who was the comic relief of the group, and with my parents I simply pretended that I was happy. 

Depression and anxiety began to develop at the age of 13. I hated going to school, I hated seeing people, and in general, I just hated life. Even with all the effort that I had put into creating these specific characters,I still got mean comments from people saying I was ‘weird’. People still continued to laugh at me, both to my face and behind my back. 

In my last year of secondary school I said to one of my best friends:

“I don’t know who I am anymore.” I explained to her that when I was alone at night, I didn’t know how to act because I could barely remember a time before masking. That’s when it became more obvious that one of the major factors playing into my depression was the constant masking. I was exhausted, but I didn’t know how to stop.

For the first year of college, things had continued in the same way, although I had finally learnt what masking was and how common it is amongst the neurodivergent community, so I felt less alone with it. But still, I didn’t fully unmask around anybody, and it was taking a toll on my mental health.

The Pandemic – a new start?

That was when coronavirus happened and the world went into lockdown…

During the first lockdown, I spent a lot of time in my room alone, as I’m sure everyone did. Whilst this was negative because I missed seeing my friends and family, it also had a massively positive effect on me. For the first time, I was being forced to confront myself and figure out what was going on with me. During this period, I started forcing myself to unmask when I was alone or with my mum. I would stim how I wanted, talk when I wanted, and I definitely was not looking into anybody’s eyes. I felt such a weight lift off of me, a feeling I hadn’t fully had since primary school. 

Lockdown continued… I lived my life completely unmasked every day, both alone and with my family. Then, when we were allowed to see people again, I started unmasking with my friends. 

Going back to college was difficult after this, as it became a lot more difficult to slip into the mask that I used to find so easy to be in, and so I stopped doing it. I still didn’t unmask fully at college, especially around my dance class who had laughed at me several times before, but I stopped trying so hard. And it made things infinitely easier. 

Gradually over the year I stopped caring about what my peers thought of me and started unmasking nearly all the time. I got weird looks, I got laughed at, I got mean girls whispering behind my back, but I had just stopped caring. By the time I finished college I was happy being myself, and the years of self-hate that came with constantly masking started to fade away.

As I sit writing this, I am rocking back and forth, and chewing on my favourite sensory necklace. I can easily say that I am the happiest I have been since I was 10 years old, and I finally love myself for who I am.I do still mask sometimes, if I have to do something scary like make a phone call or a job interview, but I’m still learning. All I know is that I will never force myself into a mask like that ever again.

Follow my journey at @autism_unmasked on Instagram.

unmasking autism, finding your identity in lockdown

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