Updated: May 16, 2022
Masking is one of the most common and most misunderstood neurodivergent behaviors. And I think it’s best taught by example.
My daughter is 13, and for most of her life, I’ve felt that she is neurotypical.
She’s been a girl on fire from the day that she was born. The kind of baby who refused to cry in the delivery room seemingly out of spite, she evolved into a determined, self-driven toddler whose first 2-word sentence was “No, Mama!” At 20 months old, she used her first full sentence. “Go Mama away me!” Complete with a talk-to-the-hand gesture. You can see where this is going.
From ages 2-5, she lived with her dad. I was in the Army and deployed in this time period, which made my house really unstable. But she’s been in my house since she started kindergarten.
In my own defense, I was evolving in my understanding of autism, ADHD, and neurodivergence in general. But in hindsight, what was happening was very clear. She’s always struggled with big emotions and was the kid who would melt down and be unable to recover without comfort. She despised having her hair combed. And while she’s able to read others’ emotions and tone of voice to some degree, she is not as aware of her own. She’s been called sassy, even disrespectful, by the adults in her life on numerous occasions.
As of the publication of this post, she just turned 13 years old. In the last 6 months, I’ve learned these things about my daughter for the first time.
She has issues with the texture of foods. Soup is just too many textures in one bowl. Cooked onions are slimy. Cooked bell peppers are slimy and taste bad. Mayonnaise is weird and creamy and just gross. We don’t even talk about mustard.
Her scalp is super sensitive. And she hates having her hair pulled.
Shirts with sleeves that end at the elbow are overwhelming.
Clutter on surfaces distracts her.
She truly doesn’t know how she sounds when she talks. She can be quite sharp and abrupt, even when she is happy.
I want to be very clear on this. It’s been 7 years since she moved into our home with her stepfather and me. We are a neurodivergence-affirming household with 2 other neurodivergent children. Though imperfect, we’ve always tried to make our kids feel that they can express whatever their needs are. But, for 3 years, she lived in a household that wasn’t affirming (though it is now, all credit given to their stepmother for that change in perspective). That brief experience created a mask that my daughter wore and wasn’t comfortable taking off for 7 years.
I asked her why she didn’t share these preferences before. She said that she doesn’t like to inconvenience people. So she’ll put up with things she dislikes. Because she doesn’t want to complain. And that’s the essence of masking. Masking happens when neurodivergent people hide their true selves, their likes and dislikes, and their feelings in order to make others comfortable. It's more than manners or being considerate. It's a process of hiding oneself from the world, thinking that nobody will like the person behind the mask.
Masking isn’t always conscious. It’s a learned behavior, often learned during traumatic interactions with those who don’t care to accept a different way of living. Even unintentional expression of disapproval is enough to confirm to a neurodivergent person that masking is necessary.
Like many behaviors born of trauma, masking sticks around long after the trauma is gone. I often hear from parents who have learned to accept autistic behavior as a variant of normal, and have become more supportive of their children over time. And, their children seemed fine. Or maybe they pulled their kid out of ABA, and their child seemed to be doing well. And then 3 years later, there’s a sudden spike in meltdowns. Or their child starts stimming more frequently and loudly. Or they are starting to hear about social struggles at school.
If that’s you, know this. Your child can wear a mask and you won’t know. You might not know for years. Until they let it slip. And what comes out might surprise you. Like a passionate dislike of mustard.