What It's Like to Mask My Autism When Returning to In-Person Work
During the pandemic lockdown, I worked remotely for over a year as a paraeducator working distance learning with high school students. In May 2020, I was officially diagnosed with autism and after years of masking my autistic traits, I had been slowly unmasking. During distance learning, it was easy to take breaks in between sessions and I didn’t have to socialize with others if I didn’t want to. I practiced self-care routines centered around my autism like stim dancing, sensory play and taking time for myself.
This summer school is the first time we’ve been able to work in person since the pandemic started in March 2020. The school was different than I remembered, there were plastic dividers between the students and everyone wore masks, but honestly, I’ve changed as well. The first day back to work and I already felt the need to place the protective shield of my own metaphorical mask on. I just spent more than a year learning how to gradually take the mask off, which my authentic autistic self has been hiding under for 31 years. I knew going back to work was going to be a trigger for me to start masking again. I wasn’t sure how to function at work without my mask on, and I’ve been scared to show my autistic identity at work.
The first day I immediately went back into my old routine of forcing unnatural eye contact with coworkers, smiling, even gossiping and complaining, which I seem to do when I get into work situations because I feel like it’s the only way to connect and interact with other coworkers. But all these are not my natural state. I’m masking to fit into a neurotypical worker, which wipes me out by the end of the day. Masking can be mentally and physically draining. The effects of masking can have detrimental effects on an autistic. I feel as soon as I come home it’s like a flash flood from the day just that wipes me away and I’m exhausted, emotional, and burnt out. For me lately, I’ve had trouble keeping up with daily self-care and executive functioning abilities. I’ve been more emotional and can easily have meltdowns.
By the time I get home, I barely have the energy to do anything. Although I don’t have to mask at home, it takes time to peel back all those layers. It’s almost as if I had layers of makeup on and underneath is just another layer of makeup that I have to take off. By the time I feel that I’ve unmasked completely, I’m too fatigued and overwhelmed to move on to tend to what needs to be done around the house. This can often be a vicious cycle. I’m too exhausted when I get home to do anything and I need my own time to myself, so household chores and even personal relationships aren’t attended to. But then I get overwhelmed or feel guilty because all the chores and responsibilities pile up at home and I want badly to do them but it all becomes too much. These are just some of the effects of what happens to me during the workweek after masking at work. I know that if I don’t do something soon I will be amid an autistic burnout before I even start working full time.
Since I’ve been back to work, I’ve been trying every day to remind myself that it’s OK to show my autistic self. I try to envision what it would mean for me to unmask and what would it look like for me at work? Since it is still hard to completely unmask at work I find ways to take it easy on myself. I have made sure to always have something small that I can stim with at work. My little stim bracelet is my favorite thing. Instead of always trying to socialize in the large lounge where everyone is, I stay by myself or find a single person that I don’t feel I have to mask as much and I like talking to. When I get home I try to do one task a day so everything doesn’t pile up and overwhelm me and I also feel like I have my own time to myself. I make sure to engage in my special interests at home, play video games, and write. I know it will take time to unmask and get back into working again after so long being at home.
What is your experience with masking post COVID-19 lockdown? Have you struggled after spending a year not having to mask? What are some things that help you when you’ve struggled with masking post COVID-19?