Op-Ed from an Autistic Person: Why I Am Elated That I No Longer Have to Practice Masking
As you, the reader, are no doubt aware, the University lifted mandates on the practice of masking on our campus this week. Masking, defined by psychologists, is a social technique employed by autistic people—and by other neurodivergent folks—that allows us to blend in with neurotypical society. While I do not speak for the wider autistic community, I am speaking for myself as an autistic man when I say I couldn’t be happier for this change.
Masking has dominated me throughout my life; I have suppressed the urge to flick my wrist (stim), I have forced myself to look people in the eye when I speak, and I have compiled a list of stock phrases for every possible conversation I can think of. In short, I have forced myself to become… neurotypical.
Why do I do this? Well, because neurotypical behavior is typical and neurodivergent behavior is divergent, and neurotypicals are ultimately not used to divergent behavior. Therefore, I gotta somehow hide my divergent behavior so people don’t look at me funny or treat me too differently; it’s self-preservation. Through careful observation and trial-and-error, I’ve been able to successfully imitate typical social norms, all the while suppressing my divergent instincts so that no one knows who I really am.
However, maintaining this image wears me out quite a bit: Every interaction requires me to power through the deep discomfort I feel staring into another person’s eyes, deep into the pit of their soul; this is all on top of the effort I put in to keep my hands away from my face. Also, you would not BELIEVE how much time I’ve devoted to preparing for every possible conversation; again, nearly everything I say to people, even in the most casual of settings, has been planned in advance—from days, to months, to years in fact. Sometimes, the disguise falters, whether it’s due to exhaustion or a conversation going in an unanticipated direction; my perfect diction crumbles and my autistic instincts come out, and I come away from that interaction fretting over whether or not I’ve been found out. Even if they didn’t notice it, I sure did.
So, you can understand why I am so relieved to know I don’t have to mask myself anymore on this campus. It means that I no longer have to spend so much mental energy on pretending, that I’m no longer so exhausted that I need about ten hours of sleep each night to function, and that I get to be myself. Hopefully, the rest of the world will follow UChicago’s lead on this.
EDIT: It has come to my attention that I have completely misunderstood what the University meant by “masking mandate.” Oops.