Here is Pt. 1.
When I was young, I was labeled “gifted.” The Gifted Kid ideology promotes the idea of these young prodigies – talented in academics, social issues, leadership, technology, art, physical skills, or proficient in any other area. There’s supposedly a symptom list associated with gifted children; having a hard time connecting with peers, boredom at school, hyperlexia, having strong feelings compared to other children, and hiding their “giftedness” to fit in.
I wasn’t gifted, I was an autistic girl (read AFAB) with ADHD.
The gifted movement has been critiqued for lumping in neurodivergent traits as “symptoms of giftedness” and leading to “gifted kid burnout.” In recent years, the gifted kid movement has tried to pass itself off as a form of neurodivergence in itself, without any professional classification of this so-called “giftedness.”
As is typical of gifted children, I worked hard to hide my “giftedness.” I suppressed my extreme emotions, didn’t discuss my special interests, dumbed down my vocabulary, and tried to remove every autistic trait I could in an attempt to make friends and not be bullied.
I learned masking.
Cutting Away the Parts of Myself That Weren’t Normal
I experience emotions intensely, to the point the smallest injustices feel like a personal calling. Some professionals would likely pathologize it as “moral black and white thinking.” I just call it empathy.
When I was 10, I had a pet ladybug I found outside that I would gaze at for hours. I asked my mom to Google what ladybugs ate and tried to find small bugs in the garden to feed it. I took it out of the little plastic enclosure and let it climb across my arm, engrossed with the little creature.
Unsurprisingly, I lost it somewhere in the kitchen and never found the ladybug again. I cried and cried for days about it. I searched frantically for it. Eventually, I moved on after mourning the loss of my new friend.
When I heard good news, I would jump up and down and flap my hands. I would scream and run around the house and be elated for days.
My emotions were too much for most people in my life to handle. I would get scolded by my parents, teachers, and other adults. I would be ridiculed for crying in school or expressing strong emotions.
I stopped bouncing and flapping my hands when I was happy. I stopped repeatedly asking questions when excited. I didn’t express what I wanted and learned to take whatever was given to me.
I think many adults that punished my emotions wanted me to “be prepared for the real world.” Instead, they left me vulnerable as an adult, struggling to hold boundaries, regulate emotions, and voice what I want.
Like a sculptor, I carefully carved away at my core, creating a socially acceptable version of myself. I chopped off my sensory needs in exchange for dissociation, pushed myself to interact despite my anxiety, forced myself to subdue emotions to meltdown later, and pretended like I had it all together instead of asking for accommodation.
The fear of being mistreated for expressing myself is ingrained so deep, it’s hard to distinguish myself from this mask.
What are the effects of masking?
Research has demonstrated that everyone, regardless of neurotype, engages in some form of masking, like changing your appearance, voice, and mannerisms to fit in. Something unique to autistic individuals though, is that they mask so significantly that it has a severe impact on their sense of self and is detrimental to autistic wellbeing. Masking for autistic people is directly related to suicidality, which is not the same for non-autistic individuals.
Not all autistic individuals mask, but it is often necessary in our present society to succeed. This is especially true for intersectional autistic people that may face discrimination, maltreatment, withheld support, and systemic abuse if they don’t mask. A black autistic person, when confronted by police, is literally faced with life or death depending on their ability to mask.
It’s easy to sit back and say, “well, then stop masking!” when considering the fix to preventing long-term health problems. To be able to unmask is an incredible privilege. On the other hand, the ability to mask can in itself be a privilege because it provides the safety that many autistic people aren’t afforded.
There is no correct answer for what to do about masking, but we know there are adverse long-term effects. Ideally, societal change would be so fundamental that no one would need to mask regardless of identity. But, that’s not currently realistic.
As a late-diagnosed, white, hyperlexic autistic person, I can only provide a privileged experience. For me, I am incredibly grateful I learned how to mask, but I also can unmask now that I’m in a safe place. That’s not going to be true for everyone. It would be inappropriate for me to give a blanket suggestion of what should be done about masking.
The one thing I do wish my parents had known though, is what masking was and passing that knowledge on to me. At the very least, knowing that this “mask” was a separate part of myself would have helped my feelings of inadequacy about my authentic self. It may have aided my ability to cope appropriately because I’d be able to recognize that I don’t have to mask when I’m alone.
Knowing what masking was would have likely helped me avoid mental health crisis because I’d have developed healthier coping mechanisms like I’m doing now as an adult.
And if my parents had known, maybe they’d have understood a little better why I’d lie about how I was feeling and smile when things were terrible. Perhaps they would have tried harder to encourage autistic expression.
I’m not lazy, I’m burned out
Masking is exhausting. If you wear a false version of yourself all of the time, you don’t have the energy to do necessary things. Different autistic people are hit with burnout at different times with different severities, but autistic burnout in children can look a lot like laziness to parents.
Why does my kid want to watch TV and do nothing else when they get home? Why aren’t they doing their homework? Why do they never take any initiative around the house?
The unseen portion of these types of questions are, what emotional and cognitive labor have they been doing all day that you can’t see?
Couple this with ADHD executive dysfunction, depression, or any other comorbidity, and you have a recipe for contention. Nothing is more overstimulating than having someone pester you to do something repeatedly when you’re tired from the day. It explains why meltdowns are so common after kids get home from school.
If I had a time machine, I would have wished my parents had known what masking was so they could have avoided some of the power struggles we had. I couldn’t explain to them that I didn’t have the cognitive/emotional resources to fulfill demands.
This is why environmental support is essential. Having environments to escape through the day can make a big difference for sensory overload. Not being pressured to “act allistic” is incredibly relieving. And being given a clear schedule that can be flexible to my needs can make the difference in whether I hit burnout.
Masking may be unavoidable and necessary for many people, but there are ways we can support autistic individuals in their lives to minimize the damage of long-term masking. Through education, support, and compassion, we can help prevent autistic burnout in ourselves and the people we care for.
For more information on specific sensory supports that can be used to prevent burnout check out Pt. 1.