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Unmasking Autism

Recently, I read a book about Autism entitled Unmasking Autism by Dr. Devon Price. As I read the book I reflected upon my journey in understanding my Autism. I had a lot of takeaways from this book, but I am going to focus on the primary focus of the book: masking.

Masking is when someone hides certain traits or personalities in their everyday social interactions. Everyone masks. But as the book points out, Autistics masks to an extreme level that neurotypicals don’t. This masking comes in various forms. Autistics are hypervigilant about following the correct social cues and making appropriate conversation. Autistics work to hide or suppress urges to stim or seek out sensory pleasures (see previous blog: ‘under pressure’). Autistics also repress aspects of their personalities and personal interests that may seem “weird” or “unusual”, and as the author points out, this can also correlate with the high percentage of Autistics who identify as LGBTQ+. I have done all of these and more.

However, masking has its toll. At the end of a day of masking, Autistics usually feel exhausted and depleted. Because of this, it is more difficult to do after-school or after-work activities. Masking has also been linked to a higher likelihood of developing dangerous habits related to food, exercise, or even drugs; this usually occurs as a coping mechanism for the stress of masking. In addition, masking also leads to higher odds of the development of mental health issues. Autistics are extra vulnerable to mental health issues, especially because it can be difficult to find professionals who also understand enough about Autism.

Masking is not voluntary. At an early age, Autistics are explicitly or subtly taught by society to mask up. This can come through therapy (some forms of ABA have been shown to lead to long-term negative masking) or through embarrassing moments as a child (this is how my masking developed). How does it manifest itself? One example is when neurotypicals label masked Autistics as “high functioning” and non-masked, more visibly Autistic people as “low functioning”. This unconsciously encourages masking because it is scary to be considered abnormal. Fully-masked or semi-masked Autistics often double down their efforts.

Yet there is a solution: unmasking. It’s difficult and not spontaneous. It can also be dangerous. For example, it can be dangerous to be an unmasked Autistic in certain scenarios like a police stop. So how do we begin unmasking responsibly and safely? Both neurotypicals and Autistics have roles to play.

Autistics need to identify what behaviors, traits, and personalities they have suppressed. We also need to determine why we suppress them. Is it because of a traumatic event? Is it to blend in? And, has this had negative consequences on your happiness and mental health? Next, it is important to identify what you want to replace these masked behaviors with: who do you want the world to see? In addition, locate groups of people who share similar interests and experiences with you. This unmasking process is explained far more in-depth in the book, which also provides useful guides and exercises to guide you through this process. Lastly, this is a process that takes time and does not happen instantaneously. Start with your close family and friends and open it up to areas you are comfortable with.

Before this book, I had already begun unmasking. This book helped me better understand how to continue this process. I am not finished unmasking, nor will I ever be. It’s not like I have fully removed my mask. That is extremely hard to do and unproductive. The important thing is to find a healthy balance where the masking done is reasonable and productive. I have begun to do this with my family and friends, in my school and synagogue and I am hopeful that I will find a comfortable masking level when I begin my first job this summer at Ramah Nyack. This is only the beginning of my journey. I am excited to see what is next.

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