In light of the recent measles outbreak, concerns are being raised over the persistent Anti-Vaxx movement, or the “Vaccine Skepticism” movement, which both center around the idea that vaccines don’t work, or that they cause harm. There is flat-out no evidence to support these ideas. After all, the Anti-Vaxx movement is on the hook for the spread of several diseases. But Anti-vaxxers are, in the worst way possible, opening up a conversation about autism (ASD) and parenting.
An argument these people tout out is that vaccines cause ASD. However, they base this on a debunked study from the now unlicensed “Dr.” Andrew Wakefield. The same people who advocate these lies are often at the forefront of “Autism Parent” support groups. They regularly produce media about the strategies, good or bad, that they use to raise an autistic child. This conversation about parenting and ASD is crucial, but unfortunately, hardly anyone is bothering to consult actual autistic people. The people who are at the forefront of prominent organizations like “Autism Speaks” advocate for detrimental practices, one of the most intense and casually employed, being “Autistic Masking”.
What Is Autistic Masking?
Autistic masking is a loose term that encompasses a range of behaviors and compulsions that occur as a result of parents or bullies forcing autistic children out of certain harmless autistic behaviors. Parents who drag their children into masking will force things like touch, noise, or eye contact, along with “stimm blocking”. ASD masking rarely stops these behaviors from occurring. Rather, it breeds immense shame within the child and immense stigma around them within society. Even worse, it contributes to unhealthy or violent behavior in autistics.
To be clear, these behaviors– not making eye contact, speaking very little, stimming, detesting touch, wearing the same colors every day, or avoiding specific noises, do not hurt anyone. Tapping does not hurt anyone and pressed cotton doesn’t hurt anyone. Neither does looking at the floor when speaking or keeping a very stiff posture.
It would be different if “Autism Parent Guides” offered solutions to self-injurious stims like headbanging (not music-related) or excessive scratching. It would be different if these parenting guides gave advice on integrating important activities like therapy or school activities. However, they do not do so. They try to train the most harmless parts of autism out of their children, which is impossible and damaging.
Autistic masking can also go further. Sometimes, typically through bullying rather than poor parenting, it can appear as if it has worked. This is comparable to sexual repression. A gay man can convince himself he is straight because of repeated abuse, neglect, and self-shame. Yet, it doesn’t mean his homosexuality is any less existent. It also doesn’t mean his homosexuality won’t show itself in a very unfortunate way, such as an adultery scandal and breaking the heart of his wife, later down the line.
This repression can lead to people (women in particular) to move through their whole lives not knowing why she feels so detached, why the buzz of ceiling lights bother her, or why eye contact gives her a migraine. Prolonged and severe masking almost always guarantees a lack of a diagnosis or a misdiagnosis and thus limited autistic resources.
Masking, in the most severe cases (usually occurring in males), results in an explosive, violent, and anxious disposition later in life (17-40). This is the case with all repression. But the difference between sexual repression and autistic repression is that sexuality is not a neurological structure, it doesn’t affect the way a person thinks, speaks, or processes sensory information. Autism does, which is why this type of repression is particularly frightening to anyone on the spectrum. Not only because of the stigma it creates, but also because of the violence that it causes.
Autistic People Speaking Out
A few autistic people have responded with their stories of masking, and how it has harmed them.
“If I hadn’t masked as much as I did I probably wouldn’t have had two autistic burnouts before turning 30. I might have been a bit ‘weirder’ but would also have energy left for actual skills besides blending in with NT’s” (NT meaning neurotypicals, as in, those without ASD).
“I was forced to mask my behavior and act ‘normal’ even in my own house. I wasn’t allowed to have meltdowns… There are very few people I trust to be my true self around, I have trouble stimming even if I’m alone”.
“I don’t know who I am anymore. The line between the mask and the real person underneath is severely blurred. I’ve gotten so good at masking in front of my mom that when it comes off during sensory overload, she believes I’m actively trying to be difficult or manipulative”.
“I think masking gave me a lot of my chronic pain and causes extra anxiety”.
More Masking Experiences
“I started masking at the age of four… I started to mimic how everyone else acted. It was a massive strain on me I would come home every day and have meltdowns. My mum asked me what I did at school and I couldn’t tell her because I was so focused on masking that I didn’t know what happened all day”.
“Masking greatly affected me sensory wise… I hid my sensory attacks, which hurt me a lot… I don’t go nonverbal, so no one noticed”.
“I started to realize then that most of the emotions I display are actually just contextual. Ultimately, there’s the moments where I’m already engaged in a shutdown but still able to function for some time, where people confuse my resting bitch face with either me being shy or an asshole who just wants attention and pretends to be angry”.
“I used to mask until I wasn’t myself anymore when I was a teenager, because I felt like others wouldn’t accept me for who I am. I didn’t have my own personality anymore, it was inspired from other people’s personalities. And most relationships I had were with the mask and not myself, which led to unhappiness. I was nobody without the mask”.
“I don’t even think I know who I am anymore after 40 years of masking”.
“I can’t not mask”.
These are not the worst examples of the effects of masking. The worst cases, done later in life, produce a person consumed by self-hatred, anxiety, and far too often, anger and aggression. The definition of child abuse is: “Any act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm”. When examined within this definition, there is nothing masking is other than abuse, and the eventual result of abuse.
A Form of Abuse
Preventing a child from participating in harmless self-soothing activities, no matter how uncomfortable it makes neurotypicals, is abuse. It’s wrong to blame the parents alone for this, though. These parents are like the doctors from the middle ages who would bloodlet their patients to let out the malevolent spirits making them sick. They are doing what they think is right because that’s what people have always told them to do. Forcing eye contact, stim prevention, forced touch, all these things are propped up by places like “Autism Speaks”, and other organizations that encourage “Applied Behavior Analysis”, a therapy that is not proven to work, and that is proven to have adverse effects (including masking).
With such misinformation flying around, one cannot blame ignorant parents for forcing their children into masking behaviors. However, one can blame them for not noticing how it affects their children. To the parents who take the advice propagated by Autism Speaks and its affiliated organizations; Masking damages your children, and it damages their trust in you as a parent. It stunts coping skills that can really help. And later in life causes at best, anxiety, and at worst, violence. Tearing your child away from their identity does nothing but delay real progress in social and practical skills
What Should Parents Do?
This entire calamity of autistic masking, which has has been going on for roughly 60 years and continues to occur, could be solved if so-called “autism experts” would consult real autistic people, especially autistic adults. There is no evidence to suggest masking improves the quality of life for autistics, and in fact, there is evidence to the contrary.
Instead of forced eye contact, speech, and touching, or prohibitions on stimming, try to encourage real coping mechanisms for autistic people. Stimming is one of the most helpful things for autistic people to self soothe. Learning ASL has been shown to improve communication in autistics. Weighted blankets are absolute lifesavers during a meltdown and can encourage touch tolerance. There are real ways to improve the situations of autistic people. Masking has never and will never be one of them.
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