Since entering the online Autistic community I have witnessed and even taken part in many conversations around ‘Unmasking.’ The basic concept is that whilst living in a world designed for neurotypical people, being stigmatised and experiencing much deliberate and inadvertent negativity, through simply not being safe much of the time, Autistic people build up layers of trauma - the response to that, in an unconscious attempt to keep us safe, a projection made up of many behaviour changes is presented to the outside world in an unconscious attempt to be acceptable to others in various ways - a mask, that is other than who we really are.
Wearing a mask can be heavy and spending a significant amount of time hiding a large proportion of who you are, and projecting other aspects of yourself. Being inauthentic in many ways takes a toll and takes a physical, emotional and mental toll. Autistic masking is linked to poor mental health outcomes. Many Autistic adults report feelings of not actually being sure who they are. We don’t know where the mask ends and we begin.
There are good reasons for wanting to unmask on a personal level and encouraging others to unmask too. Equally, it’s essential to recognise that it’s not always safe, viable, or appropriate to unmask. Autistic people who are also members of other marginalised groups are in particular danger of further discrimination, violence, and more if they are their glorious, authentic Autistic selves in certain environments.
As a community, we can acknowledge our unjust, unequal society. We can take part in Autistic Shielding to help normalise Autistic expression and culture when it is safe to do so, but the potential dangers faced by Autistic people whose mask slips in an unsafe environment are often caused by systematic issues such as racism, sexism, and ableism that are not confined to the Autistic community and can’t be solved by us alone.
Our masks are created through trauma. Each time we are rejected, shunned, or endangered by being authentically Autistic we, usually unconsciously, add another layer to our masks creating another way to hide our true selves and project ourselves in ways that others might deem acceptable, or safe to them. This means that unmasking is traumatic in itself. It requires facing each event, accepting our actions and accepting that part of ourselves. For Autistic people to do this successfully, it requires a deep understanding of self, the privilege of being safe enough to take control of aspects of your life, and a heavy reliance on changes to the environments we find ourselves in. The pressure should not be on Autistic people to make themselves safe when that lack of safety comes from external sources with more control than we have.