Old post (originally written for Instagram on 01/02/2021)
There’s a lot of discourse going around the #ActuallyAutistic community recently specifically concerning masking and whether or not this is a privilege. I’ve thought long and hard about this for many years and it’s been brought up again seeing this discourse.
Let’s do a refresh on what autistic masking is – masking is the act of hiding autistic traits to appear neurotypical in a situation. Masking is exhausting and traumatic, and is often a trauma response in itself. It’s often forced on us by therapies and well-meaning individuals who just want us to be able to appear normal so we can have “a normal life” (whatever that means). However, something can cause harm and still be an inherent privilege.
It’s uncomfortable to connect the two, but it is a fact. Autistic people are at risk of abuse, institutionalization, and police brutality. These risks increase if they are a person of colour as well. Members of my community who cannot (and I mean are physically or mentally unable to) mask are at even higher risks of these things. Further, autistic people who cannot mask are often subject to more intensive “therapies”, are unable to gain much independence or autonomy, and are often made charity cases and are used by people in power. These things can and do happen to autistic people who can mask, but to silence those of our community that are showing the trauma they face by having no choice in whether or not they present themselves as autistic in any situation makes us part of the problem.
Of course masking is harmful. I don’t think anyone is disputing that. I masked unconsciously from the age of 5, religiously, and it’s definitely caused me some damage that I am still healing from. Taking off the mask is hard, uncomfortable, and scary.
Masking is not the cure-all to autistic isolation/exclusion. As I said, I masked from the age of 5 until… still now, and I was bullied, left out, and I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. Autistic masking only goes so far, and in my experience, the mask never fully covered up my autism. But what it did do, was keep me in a integrated classroom, keep me living with my parents and not in an institution/group home, and allow me to get a job, go to university, and build credibility within my profession before I disclose that I’m autistic.
Let me repeat again: Masking is, absolutely, often a trauma response, one that is borne out of a need to mask what isn’t accepted in a society that devalues autistic and disabled people – we are at higher risk of C-PTSD and addiction, depression, anxiety, all of it.
But harm doesn’t negate privilege. It is not privilege to have to mask, it is not privilege to live in a society that devalues us, that pits members of our own community against each other. None of that is a privilege. The privilege comes from having the ability, the choice to appear non-autistic in case of a situation where this is necessary. Not all of our community has that ability. And they are simply asking that while we dismantle a society that causes trauma responses such as masking, that we also fight alongside those who are being harmed because of traits that they cannot hide.
We all have been harmed by showing our autistic traits, we know this because the world is not built for us. So isn’t it only fair to acknowledge those in our community that are harmed by showing these autistic traits that do not have the ability to hide them, in any situation? To acknowledge that to live in a world built for speaking that these in our community that use AAC have different access needs than those of us who are primarily speakers? To acknowledge that those of us who can live independently or semi-independently have a privilege over those who may require 24/7 care? To acknowledge that someone who needs help with self-care tasks such as toileting, dressing, and bathing has very different life experiences, with a higher potential for caregiver abuse, than those of us who do not require so much assistance? Being someone who has worked for autistic people who cannot masks for years before I even discovered my own autism, I saw the difference in how they were spoken to, treated, taken care of, or lack thereof.
Autistic masking is a problem. It’s something that in a perfect world, would never be encouraged or necessary. But we don’t live in a perfect world. And autistic people who can mask face different issues than those who cannot. But, to fail to
acknowledge the things that are accessible to me when I mask vs when I don’t (jobs, schooling, the ability to be listened to when I speak), would be a disservice to the community I love so much. I hear them too. Their struggles are not less than mine. I am in a position to change the way that things work, because I can communicate the way that neurotypicals listen. Some of my community cannot. And that, is where the privilege lies.