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How I reduced my masking

Like many autistic adults, I have spent my life masking to fit into a neurotypical world. Pretty darn well, if I do say so myself.

For me, masking means that I…

  • manually interpret others’ facial expressions and body language, by referring back to books and TV shows on those subjects

  • manually “work” my face or body language to show what I think is expected in a given situation, including eye-contact

  • stop reacting to or adjusting for constant sensory issues while around other people

  • endlessly rehearse conversations, no matter how trivial — then struggle when people don’t stick to that “script” in real life

It’s exhausting. Masking for me comes with a huge energy cost. And more than that, tangled up with trying to “fit in”, it meant I had lost my own sense of identity along the way.

Throughout my diagnosis, masking was by far the most unsettling revelation. I realised I had even been masking while alone, as well as around other people. That I didn’t know what the “real” me even looked like.

I’ve written more about that internal dilemma here. This is kind of a follow-up. Thankfully, a very positive one. When I wrote the first article, I genuinely didn’t know what would happen if I tried to mask less. And was quite afraid of finding that out.

Finding ways to drop my mask has been a challenge, and I’m not done yet. But I have already reduced the amount of energy that I expend by quite a lot.

On top of that, and maybe more importantly: I feel more “myself” than ever before. A much stronger sense of identity, more confident, and far more comfortable just being me. I suppose because I know what that really means now.

I wanted to share what I did, in case it can help other people too:

1. First, I paid attention to what I did differently while I was on my own vs with others. For me this meant proactively reminding myself that, while alone, it really didn’t matter what I did or what I looked like. Interrupting myself when I noticed that I was adjusting because I’d been daydreaming that someone else was around (this started when I was very young, I think to create a “safe” place to practice how to be around people…)

2. I made a list of those things so I could try them out in “safe” situations. A set of low-risk ways to try out dropping my mask. Some of these were: rocking, walking on my tiptoes, or making weird facial expressions while alone; letting myself react outwardly to sensory issues while around close friends; interrupting myself from rehearsing conversations before meeting close colleagues.

3. Then, I ran these as mini experiments. The idea of suddenly dropping my mask felt really scary. So, I treated them as one-offs until I knew how people would (or, as it turned out, would not) react. I paid attention to what was different when I did these things. In every case, the result was just an energy saving. No one ever seemed to mind. So, I carried on. I tried out different things as I went, gradually expanding the list.

For me, the biggest benefits have come while alone. Not masking by myself means I can switch off and recover the energy lost from spending time with other humans.

It also helps in social situations. Especially with people I’ve met since my diagnosis, this has felt surprisingly easy. I don’t feel self-conscious sitting strangely, fidgeting with things, rocking a bit if I need to.

Not only have people either not noticed or not cared, but because I’ve been more “myself” in those situations, the relationships feel easier and more genuine.

Although this all sounds really positive, I am not “done”…!

I joined a late diagnosis ASD support group for six weeks. It was all online, and I never had my camera on. But for some reason, in those sessions, I behaved very differently to how I ever had — even while alone — up until that point. My face grimaced weirdly, my eyes were all over the place, and I was flapping and rocking like anything.

It was super disconcerting. I thought I already knew what I was “really like” while alone, but suddenly things were different again.

Maybe being around other autistic people exaggerated what was already there? It did die down after a few weeks, so maybe it was a bit of overwhelm at meeting new people as well? I honestly don’t know.

Either way, I think it was good that I felt able to let that happen. A year ago, that would not have been the case.

I know now that it is possible to drop my mask, at least to an extent. To save some energy. To be myself.

This has already improved relationships, energy levels, confidence… It has been a much slower adjustment than some of the “routine” and “sensory” related areas. But I’m excited to find out where this gets to in another year or so.

Lauren x


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