Autistic Unmasking: How to Unlearn Trauma Responses

I’ve written about masking and sensory pain a lot. But there are still things I notice even years after recognizing that I’m autistic.

Masking is Subconscious and Pervasive

I’ve been wearing headphones around my neck everytime I go out, even just for in person meetings inside. Recently I was early for a meeting, someone came in and started talking quite loudly.

My first thought was “oh, I should put headphones on.” My hands were at my sides and I thought about moving them but then just automatically inhibited myself. It wasn’t so much a thought as a feeling. There have been many times where I worried that it would seem rude.

There was this immediate fear or concern of misunderstanding and judgment that washed over me. To me, that is the mechanism of masking. My brain has had so many negative experiences around wearing ear protection that it decides to fawn no matter what. Fawning means showing or telling other people you are okay when you are not okay at all. It’s a response to stress and anxiety.

A few seconds after I inhibited myself from putting my headphones on, I had to think consciously. I had to think to myself, “look, the people you’re meeting with know you wear headphones all the time & know you can hear them. There’s no reason to not accommodate yourself!”

This is something I caught myself doing but I don’t always catch it. These little moments can happen 10, 20 times a day when interacting with the outside world, especially with non-autistic people. To me, the way to unmask is to have positive experiences of accommodations.

Takes Conscious Effort

My nervous system has been on overdrive since I was really young. I have to learn to

  1. Recognize body signals
  2. Interpret them
  3. Know how to accommodate myself
  4. Recognize when I subconsciously inhibit my needs
  5. Consciously override it
  6. Soothe my nervous system

It is frustrating that masking is so easily built into my psyche as an autistic person adapting to society, but unmasking is unlearning trauma responses and unlearning the negative consequences of being myself as truths. I have to remind myself that I deserve accommodations. I have to remind myself that the core of who I am isn’t the problem. The worst part is that while I try to unmask, I still experience negative consequences for not masking.

And I’m not saying being completely unmasked 100% of the time is possible, safe, or even the goal. The goal is to be able to recognize when I’m doing it and being able to choose whether to continue or not. Because that’s the society we live in. Not everyone has the privilege to navigate society as an unmasked autistic person, especially autistic BIPOC who may have to mask out of necessity and protecting oneself from danger.

In case of accommodating my auditory sensitivity and hyperacusis, I don’t think in most situations it is worth masking that. This is something every autistic person has to decide in their own context and based on their own needs. And this is a long, basically forever process. It can take a long time for me to recognize my emotions or realize I was automatically choosing other people’s preferences over my needs.

We Don’t Know Exactly What We Need

For most autistic people, we were never allowed to accommodate ourselves, growing up or even now as adults. This is why “they’ll tell us what accommodations they need” doesn’t work for most of us. Because for many autistic people, especially late-identified autistic people, allistic people were so often putting their preferences over our needs, not realizing we even had a need. So we learned that other people were more important than us.

If someone asked me what I needed when I was in an unsuitable environment, for most of my life, I would say nothing. It’s still hard to say something even when I know what I need because most people find it inconvenient, or ignore my answer, or don’t understand. And that is after several years of trying to understand myself as an autistic person.

We Need a Safe Haven

Basically, autistic people have to constantly find people who let them be themselves, and be a safe environment that let’s their nervous system calm down, so they can recognize when they’re not in that state. Some autistic people never get this necessity.

Most autistic people are running on overdrive every hour of every day and they don’t even know it. I used to be that way. I had to force myself to wear ear protection, despite the negative consequences (stares, questions, shouting, “why are you more autistic now?”) to realize I had never felt relaxed. People continually told me when growing up “Stop being so uptight! Have fun! Relax!” I didn’t even know what they meant because I didn’t think I wasn’t relaxed. Turns out I wasn’t relaxed.

In high school I had shoulder pain from “loose joints” (probably hypermobility). I went to a physical therapist, and he kept telling me “relax your shoulders.” I said, “What do you mean? They are relaxed. I’m relaxing them.” He had to physically push my shoulders down. I didn’t even realize they could do that! I believe that for actual years (why I had muscle knots in my neck consistently for years), I was tensing my shoulders from being in loud and chaotic sensory environments and telling myself I was just fine.

Trying New Supports – Finding a Safe Haven

The only thing that really kickstarted my ability to “relax” was forcing myself to wear ear protection. When you don’t know that something is a problem, when everyone’s telling you it’s not, you learn to ignore the signals. And even if you don’t ignore them, you know that other people will based on personal experience.

I’m very glad I made a rule for myself to wear headphones for a week whenever I went anywhere. Just for a week. After 3 days of wearing headphones, it seriously changed my life, because for the first time I wasn’t constantly tensing my muscles. Since then, I’ve learned to be more comfortable with wearing ear protection when I need to. But as you read above, it’s never easy – it just gets easier over time the more you practice meeting your own needs.

This is a process that continues and that I will need to do for different aspects of my life in the future. This is why it is so important to have a safe environment, to have a place where your needs matter and they’re supported, and where neurotypical expectations aren’t the norm. Not every autistic person has that, and I wish they did.

If you don’t have that safe haven, I hope you can figure out what works for you with the resources you have. I hope you have other people to talk to. And I hope that it helps just a little bit to know you’re not alone.

9 Replies to “Autistic Unmasking: How to Unlearn Trauma Responses”

  1. Thank you so much for writing this! I’m just 1mth diagnosed autistic and likely adhd. Reading this has allowed me to acknowledge my autism even though every person I’ve told doesn’t think I’m autistic! If only they knew that over 40years of my 48 years of life I’ve been constantly stressed and have little knowledge of what relaxed feels like. I never got my needs met because I’m not even aware what my needs are. Here’s to learning thanks to people and posts like yours. Thank you 🙏

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I relate to every word. This could have been written about me! (Except I don’t yet have headphones. I’m buying them soon because even though I’m still staying home, the fridge is too loud.) I retired from my full-time job about 10 months ago, and these past months have been about discovering who I am when not masking and not overwhelmed 24/7. I may soon retire from the part-time online job I have, and even just contemplating that is helping me discover all these sweet layers of self that I’ve had to hide during my professional life.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am a late-diagnosed, high masking autistic PDAer and OMG is masking such a deeply ingrained trauma response for me. Maybe it’s because I went 34 years before learning I’m autistic, maybe it’s because I’m also autistic “with a PDA profile” and therefore have a unique relationship with masking, whatever it is, it has become such a reflex for me that I desperately want to unlearn because I really do want to find ways to be more authentic and survive well/have my needs met. So thank you SO much for sharing this post!! I have a feeling it’s going to be really helpful for me in this process of unlearning this gnarly trauma response. 💜🙏

    Like

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