These are my experiences so they may not match yours, and that’s okay.
There is this idea that we totally lose ourselves in our Autistic masking, as if the person we project is a falacy, a made-up persona that we wear often, and, for some of us, all of the time.
Identity, for the most part, is socially reciprocal. My identity as a mum exists due to my having a child, and due to the perception of others seeing me as a mum. If I was transported to a world in which no one existed apart from me then how long would I hold onto that identity, and for what reason?
Autistic masking is similar. It exists to keep us safe, to help us fit in, to make things easier (usually for others) but, like all identities it is reliant on social others.
The persona you make when you mask is not not you, it is just a different version of you. My thinking here is not to undermine the masking process, as a trans, bisexual, Autistic ADHDer with mental health differences and ‘invisible’ disabilities, I am familiar with the need to hide or ignore certain parts of myself to stay safe. To hide these parts means I do not show up wholly in many spaces e.g., queer spaces which are inaccessible, or a mum group which is not trans-affirming. I compartmentalise parts of myself to keep safe and to stop the constant hassle of intrusive and insensitive questions and statements (see Being Authentic is a Privilege). I try to let as much of other people’s bigotry wash over me.
Not every opportunity is a teachable moment.
It’s not always safe to correct others, or self-advocate, and I don’t have the spoons to tackle systemic bigotry all the time. No matter what parts of myself I hide, what parts I project, what parts I kind of make up on the fly, they are all my creations (despite them being centred in social interaction). The mask is me and I am the mask.
There is not a single persona I have which is not me. At work I have to think about how to make my communication as easy as possible for the young people I work with to understand. I do not talk the same way I do at home (I don’t think parents would appreciate my east-end slang or swearing!). When hand dryers or alarms go off at work, I stay strong for the young people and help them through a sensory event which, in my day-to-day life, I would avoid, run away from or cry about. This is my work mask, but that doesn’t mean that this is not me. This is just work-mode Katie.
I appreciate that I am potentially over-simplifying masking (I don’t feel I experience it much due to how I was brought up, always around other ND folk, I prefer my term Shielding).
I think what I want people to take from this is that these masks, personas, shields, camouflage, whatever you want to call them, they are a part of you, they are you.
The job of becoming more self-affirming is to make sure that you are not living out these masks all the time. This is much easier said than done, it is a life long labour of love. It is enmeshed in trauma, grief and confusion. It is mired in others perception of normativity. It is cast outside the fire of systemic ableism.
If and when you decide to live more self-affirming, you do not have to cast aside all of the things which make you you. You do not have to completely reinvent yourself, you are wonderful just as you are. Being more self-affirming just means you can love yourself more, and so too can others around you, as they get the chance to know more of you. Not the ‘real’ you, you’ve been the real you all along.