Don't mistake it as selfishness—sometimes, living well means putting your self first. Our personal comfort and self care needs to be a top priority. Often, people who are neurodivergent may struggle with making their comfort and self care the top priority. This can be because people with conditions like autism and ADHD may mask their true behaviours and feelings to fit into a 'neurotypical' world.
What is masking? Sometimes, people who are neurodivergent suppress their regular behaviours. Instead, they try to learn or copy the behaviours of neurotypical people around them. An autistic person might make make eye contact with others even when that feels unnatural. A person with ADHD may suppress stimming behaviours like leg bouncing so they don't disturb others, even if sitting still feels uncomfortable. Masking can also look like scripting and rehearsing conversations, hiding certain behaviours others might think are weird, and copying other people's facial expressions or gestures. Basically, the person who is neurodivergent is trying to present as if they are not.
Wearing a mask all the time can be exhausting. It often leads to 'Autistic Burnout,' which describes the long term psychological exhaustion caused by masking. Neurodivergent people who mask can end up with sensory and emotional overload, causing stress, anxiety attacks and meltdowns. Masking can also cause regression, meaning a person may stop being able to speak, remember things well or do daily tasks. More significantly, feeling the need to mask all the time is a problem in itself. It means the person does not feel accepted to be their true self, and must pretend to be someone else who others will accept as "normal."
As it is Neurodiversity Celebration Week, we want all neurodivergent people to celebrate their authentic selves, beneath the mask. No one should feel they have to hide their true self in order to survive.
It takes time to 'unmask' and live life authentically as a neurodiverse person. If you are someone who has been masking, it may take a lot of time, patience and courage to learn how to stop doing it. If you want to stop masking, the best way to start is to tell the people you are close to about your condition, and explain how exhausting it is to hide your true self. Once people close to you can understand and support you, it will be easier to unmask.
In order to stop masking, you will need to prioritise your sensory needs over what feels socially comfortable for others. This may start with small steps. For example, don't force eye contact, facial expressions or conversations if you don't want to or it doesn't feel right. Leave social situations without shame when you feel overloaded. This all involves an attitude shift - one where your comfort is more important than other people's opinions!
The true work rests with neurotypical people to create a world where no one needs to mask. Our families, communities and societies need to become more welcoming and understanding of neurodiversity in order for everyone to live well with authenticity, without expectations or judgements about what is and isn't normal. If you are reading this as a neurotypical person, keep educating yourself about neurodiversity. Armed with knowledge and understanding, your words and actions will begin to show others that it's safe to unmask around you. For example, don't force a family member to smile or hug you if they don't want to. If you notice someone making repetitive and unusual movements like rocking back and forth or jangling a body part, don't draw attention to it. Accept that not everyone's brains feel and think in the same way. When we embrace neurodiversity in these ways, everyone can celebrate who they truly are, unmasked.