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The Frustration I Feel for My 'Masked' Autistic Son

Editor's Note

This story has been published with permission from the author’s son.

Masking. No, not that kind of mask. I think we are all tired of that kind of mask.

I’m talking about the masks we wore before there was a global pandemic. For example, the “I’m so happy to be here” mask you put on just as you walk into a party or social event your significant other dragged you to. The mask you are wearing in order to convince everyone you interact with that you are so happy to be there when you are dying to be home in your sweats on the couch watching Netflix where no mask is necessary.

Masking: we all do it from time to time. But for autistic people, their masks are used as frequently and are as worn out as the N95s in a pandemic. They mask trying to fit in, be like everyone else, practice all the social etiquette and nuances that are required day in and day out regardless if they are at a party, sitting in the school cafeteria, hanging with family or just walking through the mall. Masking is what many autistic individuals do in order to blend in when their body is screaming to stand out.

I know my 19-year-old son Ryan masks in many instances. Maybe it’s when he’s sitting in his college dorm room and his body is screaming to let out a loud script, but he knows that is not what the neurotypical world finds acceptable, so he masks up and holds it in. As his mother, I see through the mask. I’ve seen him pull on the mask as he tries to prolong eye contact, make nonsensical chit-chat, interpret an idiom or some vague phrase and hold in a script that is bursting to come out. It has to be exhausting. What is fascinating to me is how quickly Ryan can change or remove the mask.

A few weeks ago, when Ryan was still home from college taking virtual classes, I heard him in his bedroom scripting some meme or vine at the top of his lungs. I looked at the time; it was 12:58 p.m. I knew that his class started at 1:00. I waited to see if I heard him again. I did. Even louder. I checked my phone for the time again; it was 12:59. I jumped up from my lunch at the kitchen table and made my way upstairs watching the time and hearing all kinds of hoots, hollers and phrases coming from Ryan’s room. Then at precisely 1:00, silence. I waited outside his door and listened. A moment later, he chimed in with his classmates.

The autistic mask had been removed and the neurotypical mask was in its place. This mask shuffling is equal parts astounding and heartbreaking. The fact he is asked to mask who he is every day with almost all interactions makes me both angry and sad.

Yeah, I know we all mask, somewhat. Chances are, the person your coworkers see is not the person your closest friends see, but most of us don’t have to make a conscious effort that goes against the actual biology of our brain to be someone, or something, we are not.

I am frustrated and saddened that even when this pandemic ends and Ryan can finally get rid of his paper, scratchy surgical mask, he will still carry a mask regardless of where he goes and who he is until one day, the neurotypical world will accept that neurodiversity is not something one should cover up, but something to be seen, accepted and celebrated.

This acceptance starts with you.

(Photo is of Ryan Christmas tree shopping in December. He is wearing his mask. Both of them.)

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