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The Art of Masking and Unmasking in Autism

Hi everyone, Nikki Butler here. Ready to peel back another layer of our ongoing discussion on neurodiversity? Today’s focus is on a common experience among those with autism and ADHD: masking.

In a world that often struggles to understand us, we neurodiverse individuals sometimes feel compelled to ‘mask’ our traits to blend in. However, this can be draining and lead to a loss of identity over time. For females, this is something that we learn from a very young age, and it’s thought to be part of the reason why so many females go undiagnosed (that and the fact that the criteria for diagnosis is based on boys, but that’s for another time!).

My personal view on masking: I think the is worth sharing with you, because after my diagnosis I spent a lot of time researching and reflecting on my own masking/camouflaging and how and where that showed up in my life. It may come as now surprise, but I found endless evidence supporting where I masked in multiple areas of my life. I then went through a period where I was focusing on unmasking – because I read a lot of content that told me I ‘should’. But here’s the thing I’d like you to consider:

Every single human being masks in some way. Most people wouldn’t take Friday night gin loving version of themselves to a job interview, and most people are on their best behaviour when they start dating someone new. So masking/camouflaging certain parts of ourselves is common for every human being. HOWEVER, where it becomes a problem for us neurodivergents, is where is has a negative impact on us, and it causes overwhelm, burnout and feelings of isolation. Where we are working so hard to cover up all of the parts of us that society, or those around us, don’t consider normal or acceptable. It’s a problem when we get home at the end of a day exhausted, emotional and burnt out. Where the consequences of masking are causing pain within us.

So, what I’d invite you to do, is to look at where you are masking and start to observe when and how you’re doing it. And then try and take time to notice what you’re feeling. Do you feel safe and more comfortable masking – perhaps during a difficult business meeting. Or, do you feel anxious and on edge and disconnected from yourself – perhaps within a social setting? And then start to think about where masking is serving a positive purpose, or where it’s causing you to feel the negative impacts.

I really wanted to share this with you, as I read SO much and spoke to SO many people that kept telling me I ‘should’ drop the mask and be my true self. And whilst I am 100% all about being our truest self, I am also 100% all about creating a life that supports each of us. It’s going to be impossible to avoid all of the situations and people that you find challenging, and in some situations, masking might be the things that makes you feel safe and enables you to get through that situation as best you can – I have plenty of examples of that! A powerful think I did, was to notice where I was masking in situations that had a negative impact on me. A lot of this was with friends, clients and feeling that I ‘should’ do things because everyone else enjoyed them. I also had major surgery, where I was open and honest about my needs, and it was the least stressful surgery (I’ve had 14) I’ve ever had, because I stopped trying to be OK and be ‘normal’ patient.

I hope that helps to give you a broader way to think about masking. It’s such a hot topic in our neurodivergent world. Ironically, I felt so much anxiety thinking I had to remove the mask, then it was making some of my other autistic traits much harder to manage. Context is key. You are unique, and whatever you need to do to feel safe and comfortable, whilst letting yourself shine, is absolutely OK!

The first step to unmasking is radical self acceptance. Acknowledge your neurodiversity as an integral part of you—it’s not something that needs to be hidden away. Recognise that it’s okay to stim, to seek quiet when overwhelmed, or to have focused interests. It’s all part of what makes you unique and brilliant, and will undoubtedly have played a huge part in your success to date.

Next, share and inspire others, where you feel you can. The more people understand about neurodiversity, the less need there will be for anyone to mask. Advocate for yourself and others when necessary. This not only helps reduce societal pressure to mask but also promotes a broader understanding and acceptance of neurodiversity. My vision is to create a world where the next generations of autistic and ADHD females feel empowered and inspired to be the truest version of themselves. I’m so excited to see what they can achieve with the freedom to fly, and to know they are living life free of the challenges that many of us that have had late diagnosis have experienced.

Develop self-care strategies to mitigate the exhaustion that comes from prolonged masking. This could be anything from a quiet evening with a book, a walk in the park, or even just some downtime to be yourself, unapologetically. If you know you have to be exposed to a situation where you need to mask, then make sure you have time on the other side to recalibrate and recover. If I have to go to meetings in the city, or awards events – I make sure I have a quiet day before, and a couple of quiet days afterwards, with very limited commitments. I need silence and alone time to reset, and time to do something I love – to bring me back to me.

Remember that you don’t have to navigate this journey alone. We’re all here for one another and the more we can connect, celebrate and share our experiences, the more we can thrive and shine in our lives. Creating success and happiness on YOUR terms is exciting, isn’t it!

And remember, while it may sometimes feel necessary to put on a mask, always remember your true self underneath. Embrace it, celebrate it, and let it shine through.

Until next time, remember to be unapologetically you. Keep being fabulous. Nikki x