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How it Feels to "Unmask" as an Autistic Woman

... and why it's a necessary step in coming to terms with an autism diagnosis.

Key points

  • "Unmasking" is the process of revealing one's true, authentic, autistic self.
  • Autistic people often feel a huge relief when they stop engaging in camouflaging behaviors.
  • Unmasking is received in a variety of ways by friends and family, some of which are more positive than others.

A documentary I watched recently, presented by autistic naturalist and television presenter Chris Packham, offered some fascinating insight into the process of “unmasking” experienced by an adult woman who was diagnosed with autism in her twenties. In the film, she revealed that even those closest to her—including her mother—only knew the version of herself she chose to reveal to the world. They weren’t aware of the constant struggles she faced in hiding her distress and the traits which stood out as “autistic,” including rocking back and forth and flapping her hands. Only her husband knew the unmasked version.

We hear more and more about what it feels like to "mask," or "camouflage," autistic symptoms; something that autistic women tend to engage in to a high degree. But we hear far less about the process of “unmasking,” despite its importance to many as they strive to become more comfortable and authentic in themselves.

Manny Moreno, Unsplash

Many autistic people who receive a diagnosis in adulthood discover that they’ve gotten through life thus far by disguising who they really are, to one degree or another, in an effort to pass as “normal.” Some have been pushed into this by bullying peers or by parents who can’t accept their child as they are. Some will simply be driven by the need to make friends and fit in as best they can.

Yet masking is exhausting and is linked with a higher risk of mental illness and suicidality. Because of this, when people discover they’re autistic and begin a process of self-acceptance, they often want to reveal their true selves.

The Positive Side of Unmasking

My client Carmel* told me, “It took me a while to accept that I was autistic, but when I finally did, I wanted to drop the mask. I wanted to be honest with my friends and family that it was hard for me to socialise and that I couldn’t go to certain things, rather than keep pretending I had a headache. I felt that because I was accepting myself, the next stage in moving forwards was to ask other people to accept me too.”

Like Carmel, another client, Chloe, wanted to be more open and honest with people close to her. She also wanted to change things in her working environment. “I didn’t jump in and tell everyone I was autistic all at once. It’s been a slower process," she said. "But I did make friends aware of it as I felt they’d be more accepting than my family.

"It’s been a huge relief to let them know that I’m struggling in a particular venue, or that I really can’t leave arrangements until the last minute. I feel like I have a voice. At work, I was terrified about the consequences, but it’s a large organisation and so far, they’ve been great about things like giving me permission to not go to meetings that I don’t want to, and to do less travel.”

When Unmasking Doesn't Go Well

Unmasking is a significant stage in coming to terms with being autistic—but unlike Chloe and Carmel, not everyone has such a positive experience.

Emma told me that, despite her best efforts to be authentic with those around her, they found it difficult to accept that she could be different from the person they’d always known. “I think I had great expectations of how it would feel to be open with people, but it’s become a battle," she recalled. "I’ve told my close friends and family that I’m autistic, and they’ve been fine with it, but they don’t seem to realise that it’s a big thing for me. I’ve tried to change the way I act, but I keep getting pulled back into the same old roles. It’s been very disheartening.”

Diane, a woman in her twenties, described how she lost her best friend in the process of unmasking. “Discovering that I’m autistic is so huge for me," she told me. "But when I told my friend, she just sort of said it was nonsense—despite knowing about my depression and suicidal ideation. I told her about all the symptoms I had, and I described how I’d always masked in front of her by using alcohol to be sociable. Again, she just sort of laughed—and when I tried to be honest with her about my needs, she ended up being nasty. I’ve cut her out of my life, which feels awful but also necessary.”

How to Unmask More Effectively

Learning to unmask can be a beautiful and meaningful experience—but as Emma and Diane's experiences show, it’s important to do so without any fixed expectations about how everything will play out.

Many people will want to learn about the new you and support you as you show your true colours. Others will find it hard to accept your reality. Some might simply take longer than others to accept that the person they love has had to deal with such significant struggles throughout their life. What’s important is to work out what you need, and from whom, and to continue to act in a way that feels authentic and right for you.

*names have been changed

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