February 25, 2020

Rejecting the Mask, Accepting the Autistic Self

Autistics are talking more and more openly about the masking they engage in to navigate their daily domination by neurotypicals. Neurotypical reactions to the “reveal” of autistic masking fall on a continuum from guilt to sorrow to a sincere desire to help. “Take off the mask,” neurotypicals blithely urge. It is a nice sentiment, after all, suggesting that neurotypicals are ready for autistics to be their true selves. But are they? 

If you have read any of my other blog pieces, I have argued that the autistic need to mask originates from neurotypicals’ refusal to feel uncomfortable. Put simply, autistics mask because nonautistics cannot manage their own discomfort when around autistics. Rather than make nonautistics responsible for their own emotional regulation, society’s power structure forces this task upon autistics. It’s akin to forcing people of color to solve racism. 

“When autistics take down the mask, they do so knowing and accepting that neurotypicals might not like what they see, who they see, and how they feel as a result.”

In some ways, masking is the least of all evils birthed from neurotypical irresponsibility. There is a very real autistic body count — populated by anxiety, depression, exhaustion, burnout, suicide, and PTSD — that continues to grow. This body count highlights what happens when the minority group is made responsible for solving the problems constructed by the privilege of the majority. 

When autistics take down the mask, they do so knowing and accepting that neurotypicals might not like what they see, who they see, and how they feel as a result. Shedding the mask means autistics are not just resisting a conditioned coping strategy. They are rejecting the hegemony’s founding principal: the need to be liked by neurotypicals. 

Living in a predominately neurotypical society has taught autistics that if they don’t get upset when people don’t like them, they (as people) and their reactions are categorically wrong. The recognition that a neurotypical dislikes them is supposed to spur change and growth. (Read: neurotypicalization). 

Autistics are supposed to be grateful for the ability to read the rejection of others (because isn’t that impaired by autism?!), appreciative of the opportunity to change, and motivated to become more likeable because these are “neurotypical” abilities. No one would wantonly and knowingly reject these skills and opportunities unless they were oblivious. Or antisocial. Or “severely” mindblind and unempathetic. 

Nonautistics have the luxury of rejecting the rejection of others. Neurotypical men and women can reposition labels like “arrogant” and “bitchy” in favor of descriptors like confident and self-assured. They can choose when to follow the neurotypical dogma of allowing the thoughts and feelings of others to dictate personal self worth and when to reject it. 

“Nonautistics have the luxury of rejecting the rejection of others.”

In contrast, when autistics disregard the feelings of nonautistics, autistics are bombarded by a litany of accusations and falsehoods: they are antisocial, oblivious, “more” autistic. These labels undermine the notion of choice in whose opinions matter when it comes to how autistics define themselves. 

Autistics have to acquire outside validation to prove their lack of care about someone’s reaction to their true selves is “okay”, let alone self-sufficient and laudatory. And, this need for sources and evidence is true for things beyond how much credence to give to another person’s reaction (e.g., vaccines, ABA, seclusion rooms).

Neurotypical conditioning teaches autistics that it is safer to be unskilled at caring about what others’ think, than it is to not care. Perhaps this is why the dismantling of masking is so profound. Autistics are not just rejecting the neurotypical definitions of socialization and identity, they are also carving out a space of radical acceptance of themselves. 


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