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My Lived Experiences with Autistic Masking

When I was a young child in the mid-to-late 1990s into the early 2000s, the prevalence of the autism spectrum was not as widely recognized as it is in the present. Therefore, when I was a toddler, my family, specifically my parents, did not possess the knowledge or expertise that they would learn as I aged. In an interview I conducted with my mother regarding my autism and the behaviors that came as a result, my mother elaborated on her observations from my very young years, "At age eight or nine months, you started arm-flapping vigorously when you were watching children's television shows and you would get startled by loud noises easily, such as the vacuum cleaner and blow-dryer, or if anybody raised their voice."

My mother continued, "You didn't start walking until you were two years old, and you had trouble picking up food, such as Cheerio's, with your index fingers and thumbs, which is known as your Pincer grasp, which goes along with underdeveloped motor skills for your age. You were behind in those skills for your age." My mother's observations about my early development and when she first noticed signs of autism in me are consistent with impediments I still struggle with, such as the underdeveloped motor skills, which I've been unreasonably critiqued for in social interactions as far as proper hand-shakes are concerned. The arm-flapping is still present at times as well, albeit I've learned to reduce the frequency of my arm-flapping over the years.

As far as the arm-flapping is concerned, during my interview with my mother, I asked her about when she decided that masking the autistic tendencies was necessary, she responded, "Once you started middle school and you noticed more people reacting to the autistic behaviors. We (my family) only had you modify those behaviors in public with reminders, stress balls, and having you push grocery store carts, and not in privacy at home, as suggested by your doctors and therapists. We were suggesting behavioral changes to ease your comfort about the reactions and stares and comments from strangers, not because the family minded because we knew why you were doing the behaviors. We also bought you an IPod and earphones to lessen your stress about loud environments, and we had you wear hats to modify your hair-twirling behavior."

My mother's observations regarding my masking are on-point, as I can recall vivid memories where my lack of masking my autistic behaviors resulted in uncomfortable reactions and facial expressions from strangers conveying misapprehension and derision. It was not just stares and mean-spirited facial expressions, I had to deal with certain judgmental individuals who referred to me with a very cruel and derogatory word that I highly discourage people try not to use. The word I'm referring to is a word commonly used that begins with an "r" and describes a lack of intelligence in the person being called that word. I am the opposite of that word, I am a very intelligent, autistic man who is articulate and very sensitive to certain things, one of which is that cruel word. That "r" word is an awful word that, when used inappropriately, which it mostly is these days, is hurtful and unnecessary to use in that context.

I have had a decade-plus worth of therapy to give myself proper closure over that word being used to describe me, since it is totally false about me and was said by certain peers and strangers who were uninformed about how to use that cruel word. From the arm-flapping to the hair-twirling, and the other autistic tendencies, a lot of autistic people are taught to modify those behaviors to allow others around the autistic community to be more embracing and not as judgmental, which in-turn, carries a contradiction for the notion of autism acceptance.

If autistic people are to be accepted as precisely who they are, why should the established social norms and expectations from the neurotypical population be the "right way," and most autistic people must abide by those norms to have increased social friendships with neurotypical people? It is an imposition on the autistic community to expect autistic people to modify crucial behaviors, unusual as those behaviors may appear, to provide the autistic people with the mental relief those behaviors are designed for, such as the arm-flapping and similar behaviors.

My third question for my interview with my mother was about her perspective on the autistic masking, or being expected to mask to avoid misjudgment from the wider neurotypical community, which my mother answered, "I think that people need to be educated, starting in elementary school, more about autism and the tendencies that autistic people show, because of the misjudgment and jumping to conclusions that many neurotypical people express toward those tendencies. Adults also need to be educated, as do business owners, law enforcement, and college professors, on how to properly communicate with the autistic community. Autistic people could also learn appropriate self-advocacy skills to help themselves and others be more understanding."

I agree completely with my mother on her perspectives, the more neurotypical people take the time to learn communication skills tailored to autistic people, rather than burdening the autistic community with adapting their social skills and behaviors to be as neurotypical-esque as possible, the more a common ground can be reached for autistic people to be more authentic and not mask as much. The masking of the tendencies is tiring for many autistic people, including me, so the more education is brought to the forefront, the less masking might be necessary for the autistic community in future generations.

To complement the education about the autism spectrum, increased exposure to the autistic community would be beneficial for the neurotypical population, because if the two sides interacted in social situations over time, the neurotypcial population could become more comfortable around autistic people and become more familiar with the autistic behaviors, thereby further reducing the autistic people needing to mask as much. Since a lot of autistic people lack real-world experiences to recognize how to react in certain situations without the behaviors presenting unpleasant outcomes, if the neurotypical population worked more intensively with the autistic community on appropriate reactions in social situations, that could be beneficial to the autistic community to develop coping skills in stressful situations and make both sides be more comfortable with each other. With all of this in mind, I strongly encourage and implore further self-education about the autism spectrum through the following resources:

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