Unmasking Strategies​ for Safety

Blue solid foreground with text "Unmasking Strategies​ for Safety"
If you want to unmask, how do you do that safely? And how can you tell when it's safe to unmask, and to what extent? Here are some principles to tweak things in your favor.

Unmasking safely

Unmasking your autism can be scary, anxiety provoking, and sometimes dangerous. A lot of the time, it’s more scary than it could be because we don’t have any idea how to smooth the transition and deal with the issues that come up.

This workshop focuses on strategies around safety, how to tell when it’s safe to unmask, and to what extent, how to tweak things to better protect yourself, and to have a better chance of being safe in the process, and how to deal with some of the inevitable pushback that will come.

This workshop is geared toward Autistics and is inclusive. The presenter is likewise AuDHD.

This is a recording of a workshop hosted by Heather Cook of Autism Chrysalis on 18 July, 2023.

The recording

Unmasking Strategies for Safety

How to get the slides

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This workshop takes a lot of time and effort to create, and while I’m happy to put it on for fee, if you want more than that, like the slides, I think it’s reasonable to ask for a little return. This helps subsidize my out of pocket costs, most of which goes to a human editor to correct the auto transcription.

You get TWO files:

  1. All the slides, for quick reference or easy printing (if desired).
  2. All the slides, PLUS the transcript and space for notes.

I thought about what I would want if I were to put my hard earned cash toward this, and I’d want more than a file of the slides. I’d want something more useable.

So I’ve added the complete transcript, interspersed with the slides, so you can read along with them on your device or print them out (but that would be a lot of paper). With space for your own notes and thoughts.

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    Here’s the full transcript

    Alright, welcome again, this is Heather from Autism Chrysalis, and we are going to go ahead and start with our workshop on unmasking strategies, specifically relating strategies for safety. Today is the 18th of June* *(I misspoke, it was July.) 2023. I’m gonna go ahead and share my screen…


    Can everyone see the slide?

    Okay. Great. So you are welcome to participate during this with your camera off or on, totally fine either way. You’re welcome to move around during this to fidget, stim tic, take notes, look away, come and go as you please. There’s lots of ways to pay attention, do what works for you. You’re also able to set up zoom in a couple of different ways that might help you out. You can turn the chat on or off, as that’s useful for you or distracting, whatever works. You can turn the closed captions off or on, if that’s helpful or distracting again. If you don’t like seeing the picture of yourself, you can scroll over the picture of yourself, and there’s three little dots in the top right corner of it, click on that and you can press the option to “hide self view”.

    I would ask: if you can keep your microphone on mute during this, just reduce background noise, so that it doesn’t show up in the recording. But if you do have a question, feel free to speak up or put it in the chat, the chat is useful.

    Okay. So let’s go ahead and get into this. The plan for today is to do a little bit of intro, about five minutes or so, and then we’ll talk about what masking is and what it’s not. I only want to talk about that a little bit because I really want to spend most of the time on the strategies. We’ll get into why you might want to mask and why you might not want to. Then we’re gonna get into the strategies itself, and I’ve organized it into a sort of ‘six steps for unmasking safely’. Then a little closing.

    Alright. So that’s what to expect, here’s what not to expect: I promise that this is not a sales pitch, this is not an ad, it’s not going to be. That’s not what you’re gonna get from me, this is more of an info dump and a time to just genuinely learn good things. This is how I give back to the autistic community. So it’s not going to be some sort of disguised sales pitch. I do find it helpful to get some feedback, so I do ask for feedback at the end. The link is there and I’ll put it in at the end as well, in the chat, and it’ll be in the email that you get.

    Alright. So, a little bit about me. My name is Heather cook, I’m autistic, I’m ADHD, I have a variety of sensory processing differences, I live with chronic pain from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and I have faced a lot of challenges in my life, including poverty, trauma, disability, and repeated burnouts.

    I’ve also managed to come out. To find what works for me, to heal from the things that happened to me, to find compassion, energy and purpose in my life. To be able to be myself in a world that isn’t designed for me. And for the last few years I’ve been giving back as a life coach, trying to help other people to find their own journey. Not mine, not a replica of what works for me, but to help them find what works for them.

    Yeah, so my purpose at this point in my life is to help build an autistic positive society, an inclusive society. In which… really the end goal is beyond inclusion… it’s where everything is designed such that all needs are taken into account and simply accommodated for by default.

    That is a lot, I get that, and I believe that it’s possible. It’s going to take a lot of work.

    This is part of that.

    I also want to acknowledge where some of this has come from, I want to remember what happens when the needs of all people are not acknowledged, when they’re not accounted for, and when, in fact, some people feel they have a right to do with others what they want. When they use their power over people to destroy, to kill, to systematically dismantle and oppress.

    My ability to talk to you today from where I live and work, comes because that has happened to a lot of people. Where people lost their homes, their culture, their lives, and those specifically: the Omaha tribes, the Ponca tribes, the Ioway, Otoe, Missouri, Salk, and Fox tribes that used to, and still, live in this place.

    When we unmask as neurodivergent people, we become more visibly ourselves among the perceived neuro-majority, we express a creative power, a generative power that can make the world better.

    Okay, so where does this fit in? So, what we’re gonna be talking about today is unmasking. Let’s start getting into the meat of it. So, in a workshop I did two workshops ago on autistic burnout, I laid out five different areas that need to be addressed in order for true burnout recovery to happen. Not just to get out of burnout, but to break the cycle and create a genuinely positive life for yourself.

    And unmasking is one of those five areas. So this is about figuring out what works for you, getting to know yourself again for the first time, figuring out what’s you and what’s the mask, about caring for your trauma, building better relationships, and rebuilding old relationships to make them in better ways.

    So that’s where this fits. This is not just burnout recovery, but also how I see burnout recovery is actually making a neurodiverse positive life.

    Okay. So let’s talk for just a minute about what masking is and what it’s not, let’s start with what it’s not. Masking is not simply faking a smile, it’s not laughing at jokes to fit in, it’s not giving in or compromising, or not only that. It’s not just letting someone have their way to avoid a fight, and it’s not just following social rules and expectations. It can encompass those, but it’s not just those because those can happen with or without asking.

    So what is masking? And I’m gonna set this up as…

    Hold on one second. I just realized that microphone is in a really terrible place… Does this sound better all of a sudden?

    Okay, I’m sorry about that.

    Alright, so what is masking? I’m gonna set this up in a three step concept. So we all have an essential self, an authentic self, a core self, depending on which model you’re talking about. And that is your self that is free from any external influences.

    Then we also have a social self, that eases frictions when we work with other people, when we live around other people. And the social self is guided by cultural messages. It’s shaped as we grow up, and it comes from messages that we get from the people around us, from our family, from our school, from our culture, from advertisements, media, whatnot, that tell us what’s acceptable behavior and what’s not acceptable behavior.

    There’s sort of a push back that goes on between the social self and your essential self, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    So, for example: smiling at strangers.

    Smiling at strangers is a thing that humans, as a species, do across many, many cultures as a signal to other people that we are a safe person, that they don’t have to be in danger around us. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re happy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we like the person, but it’s this the signal that we’re a safe person, at least so far.

    So that is something that many of us learn to do in society. It’s not masking, but it helps ease interactions with someone that you don’t yet know, or don’t know well.

    That’s not necessarily a bad thing. What masking is then, it’s taking that way, way beyond just the easing frictions, or phrasing something nicely so that it doesn’t get on someone’s case, or smiling, or answering “how is your day?”. Those sort of little things, eating with forks and knives.

    Those are all examples of social messages that we that we incorporate as we grow up.

    Okay, so some of us get way more conditioning than that. Often, people with marginalized identities like autistics, other neurodivergent individuals, other marginalized groups, and those of us who grow up with unsafe people as our primary caregivers, those of us develop a set of strategies that compensate for our differences, and camouflage our differences, to try and protect us from that majority. From the powerful people in our lives, or in our cultures. To try and pretend that we’re not different.

    Whereas the social self is just sort of easing frictions, but it’s an acknowledgment that everyone’s got a little bit of differences. “You like this thing, I like that thing.” There’s personalities, we have different backgrounds, it’s okay. But masking is like “I have to hide who I am, I have to hide not just the things that I like…” Although it could be that, if the things that you like are outside of what is the perceived normal range…

    But it’s also like “I have to hide how I move in the world, how I talk in the world. I have to hide the things that I do, who I am, in more extreme ways in order to protect myself.”

    So if it’s a protective thing, why would we want to unmask? Why would we want to give up that protection?

    Masking is incredibly draining, it takes a lot of work to keep up that front, to keep up those camouflaging and the compensating strategies that we use. And that energy drain, even though if we might be used to it… In fact, especially if we might be used to it. You might be so adept at it, so used to it, that we don’t even realize how much we’re doing it.

    This is definitely me.

    So we might not even notice how much it’s draining our energy until we do less of it and see the difference. So that energy drain can create burnout, it can create physical illnesses. It can create depression, anxiety. It can strain relationships. It prevents us from really knowing ourselves, from being known. And therefore from ever feeling like we’re actually accepted for who we really are, because we’re not, because we’re not showing people who we really are. So therefore, to whatever extent they are willing to accept us, it’s still not really us because we’re not showing them who we are.

    Did I phrase that reasonably?…

    Okay, so that’s how it affects us, but it also actually damages society because it maintains the oppressive systems and the discriminatory status quo by giving those people who are in the majority, by giving those people who have the power, no reason to question their privilege. They don’t have to adjust to anything, they don’t have to try and take us into consideration, because they have no reason to take us into consideration, they never need to take us into consideration, they don’t need to adjust anything.

    So it keeps us in a position of constantly needing to camouflage, to compensate, to hide. So that we can maintain the system, so the system doesn’t need to change.

    When we are functioning at that level of hiding who we really are… we don’t have full access to our brains, to our nervous systems. We don’t have full access to our bodies, to who we are, and therefore we can’t give our best because we have a lot to contribute to this world and this world isn’t taking advantage of what we really can do. Because it’s keeping us in a place that says that it’s not okay to be us. So therefore it can’t.

    We could make this world so much better. If we’re not constantly fighting anxiety, not constantly fighting depression, not constantly fighting burnout. When we have energy, and full access to ourselves, we can do amazing things. And right now, the world isn’t taking advantage of that.

    The more of us who are able to unmask, and to show the world what we can do. The more the world has to adjust to: at first accommodate that, and then accept that, and then include that, and then just consider that completely normal. Better this world is gonna get.

    So that’s my end goal. Idealistic? absolutely. Unrealistic? I don’t think so.

    Okay. So I also want to… before we get into the actual steps of unmasking, that’s the very next thing… just make it make it very, very, okay to say that you do not have to unmask. This is not a should, this is not something that you need to do, this is not something that you should do, or that I’m trying to get you to do.

    What I’m going to start to get into is just “if you choose to, here’s what you can do to protect yourself in the process.” But masking is protective, and in some situations, with some people, we really genuinely need that protection.

    So if you are in a position, in a relationship, in an environment, with people who it’s unsafe to be around, masking might be your best bet. You don’t need to unmask because other autistics are doing it, talking about it, or recommending it. Or even because you attended this workshop, or because anyone else has any other opinions about it.

    The whole point of unmasking is to listen to yourself. So listen to yourself. Figure out what you need at this point. Because you get to choose.

    And also, it’s not all or nothing. At some point, circumstances might change and you might want to unmask a little more, you might be able to unmask a little bit more.

    Okay. I see some lovely chat going on, lots of comments. You’re welcome to continue that, I’m not gonna be able to address each one but I love that it’s happening. Please do continue. And if you don’t want to see that, if that’s distracting for you, can you can turn that view off on your on your own end.

    Okay. Let’s get into the actual practicalities.

    So I’ve laid out sort of six steps, but it’s not steps in the sense of an absolute linear progression. I think it is, to some extent, a linear progression. That’s why I’ve used the word steps. But you can also jump back and forth, it doesn’t have to be in this order.

    Many of you will identify yourselves in different phases of this. You might be farther along, some people might be right at the beginning. Some people might have been doing this for a long time. Find your own place in this process, and feel free to adjust as what works for you.

    So here’s the general idea: First, get some context for what’s going on, create zones of safety, find what you can rely on, then evaluate your risk, strategize. Then put that into action with just tiny moves. Little bits at a time can make huge differences over time. Expect pushback, we can talk a little bit about how to deal with that, and reinforce the times when it works. Reinforce the successes to help your nervous system adjust to the differences.

    So we’re gonna talk about each of those, and at the end of each one the last slide is going to be a few self reflective prompts that you can use to take this and work with it on your own more later. You’re welcome to take a screenshot of those slides, or get them from the recording or the transcript later on.

    Okay, so let’s talk about step one: get some context, recognize where the mask is coming from. So I think that it’s incredibly important to understand why you mask in the first place. That way it doesn’t feel like just something that you did wrong. In fact, it’s something that you did right. It’s absolutely what was needed at that time when you started doing it, and possibly for a long time.

    This is not something wrong with you. Masking is a completely reasonable response to an unreasonable situation. The unreasonable situation is that we grew up with cultural narratives that shaped and formed us, but what they taught us was that it wasn’t okay to be us.

    They taught you that it wasn’t okay to be who you are, they pushed you down and excluded you in order to satisfy other people’s comfort and ease. So that other people didn’t have to change or think of the world in a different way. They didn’t have to accept the child that they had, instead of the child that they wanted. They didn’t have to accommodate you in a classroom. They didn’t have to see you on the street and adjust their expectations of a person. There are so many things that people will do to protect themselves.

    Now I’m thinking of the ‘person in power’… We all protect ourselves in different ways, the people who are oppressing us are not, most of the time, doing it because of innate cruelty or meanness. They’re just protecting themselves and their worldview from something that looks different. And in their minds, differences associated with threat.

    People will do a lot to protect themselves, including oppress other people.

    So we also did a lot to protect ourselves, and for those of us who mask it is often some version of oppressing ourselves. Of believing that we were wrong to be the way we were, and at some point that was a belief that was helpful to us.

    It’s also a lie. You don’t have to live with that forever.

    Okay, so a lot of us who are neurodivergent got disapproving messages, negative messages, punishing messages when we acted outside of perceived normal standards. And conforming to those standards kept us safe from some or most of those consequences, but usually not all of it, which is why we end up with anxiety, and depression, and panic attacks, and all sorts of mental health issues.

    But those are just symptoms of what’s happened to us. It’s not an intrinsic part of who we are, and it’s also not an intrinsic part of autism, but doing that rewarded us with friends, it got us jobs, it got us housing, it got us partners, family, relationships, food, all sorts of things. We were rewarded when we did that, it helped us.

    And if you are now at a point in your life, where you’re able to provide some of that for yourself, or to find other ways to get that, or you’re around people who might be able to accept, to make the adjustments, to accept you for who you really are…

    So someone just asked if I can talk about how to deal with critical self judgments when we’re trying to figure out how to unmask. I got that a few times in the registration questions, and this is kind of how we are getting at that.

    Understanding where it comes from, understanding that we’re not doing this because we’re wrong, because we’re bad, or because there’s something broken in us. We’re doing this because we were taught to. And of course, you do the thing that you’re taught to do. The thing that keeps you safe, the thing that protected you, the thing that helps you to fit in, to feel acceptance, to feel belonging, to feel at least less of an outsider. Why is there any guilt in that? There’s no shame in doing the thing that will help you feel loved, accepted. That’s a core human desire and need.

    So here’s the self reflective prompts. Some of these might actually help around letting go of some of that guilt. So here’s the prompts:

    Who in my life was uncomfortable around me when I was most of myself? How did they express their discomfort? What cultural messages did I get? That told me that it wasn’t okay to be me? When did those messages messages impacted me the most? And in what ways? What beliefs did I take from those experiences about myself or about others? Or about the world? And how does masking protect me in my life now? When is it most useful?

    If you take some time to really think through some of that, in whatever way works for you… you can journal about it or not journal about it, just think about it… Notice what comes up. Wondering as some of that helps to lessen some of the guilt, or the shame around masking.

    Okay, so here’s step two: create zones of safety. Because unmasking is a risk, it is important to reinforce for your own nervous system that you’re not putting everything on the line. It’s easier to take risks when it doesn’t feel like everything is at stake.

    So take some time to notice which areas of your life are currently stable. Which people in your life you can reasonably rely upon? What things are not likely to change, even if you do unmask a little or a lot?

    So here are some examples, and these are the self reflective prompts:

    If you unmask a little at home, at work, or in other areas of your life, is your housing likely to go away? Is your income likely to go away? What about your food? Your medical care?

    For some of you the answers to a couple of those might be yes, for some of you it’s not. Recognized which is genuine, because it can feel like everything is going to be put on the line. So breaking it down, which one is actually a risk or not?

    And for those of you where housing or income is genuinely a risk. Fine, those are the areas that might not be… definitely not the starting place anyway… but it might not be the place to work on unmasking at this point. You might unmask in other areas of your life.

    But also recognize the other things that you can rely on. Which are the people around you, that you live with, or that you work with. Those that could adapt, that might be able to make that adjustment. Who are people in your life that you can vent to, that you can cry to, that you can talk to? When you’re in this process, you’re going to need a lot of that.

    What are other things that you can rely on? Things that aren’t going to just “pf!”, go up in smoke.

    Your special interest, your passion. They aren’t gonna leave you, those are in your head. No one else can force those out. Do you have animals in your life? Do you have a therapist you can go to? A coach that you can vent to?

    A group that can accept you? That could be a like an official support group or it could be a special interest group. It could be a hobby group, it could be social media, it could be other autistics online.

    What are comfort objects? That could be anything from fidgets, it could be… thinking of too many individual examples… stuffed animals, memorabilia, just things that bring you joy. Things that you rely on, that when you see it, or when you hold it or when you get some access to it, it helps you calm down. You feel better, you like who you are.

    What are your safe foods? Your routines that bring you comfort, that bring security, that bring a sense of stability in your life? Clothing? The clothing that you have is not likely to just vanish because people yell at you, you still got that.

    Your furniture, your collections, shows, games, spaces that could be anywhere from your bedroom to your house. Whatever your living situation is, if that’s a safe place. It could be a place that you can go to. A park, a friend’s house, someone that you know, what are the spaces in your life? It could also be online spaces, forums, groups, other places where you can find security, comfort, reliability.

    Okay, is this making sense? Just checking in with the chat…

    Yeah, so life can change dramatically in this process. Often it’s in small increments but sometimes it can be dramatic, major moves that happen quickly. Recognize what is going to stay the same even in that process.

    After my own self identification, I made, intentionally, some major moves in my life. Changed just about everything in the course of a few months. Even though I was the one who did it, it was hard to deal with. It was also the best thing that I ever did.

    But, in that process, I kept having to remind myself of what wasn’t changing and the things that I had when I moved. I made sure that I had comfort objects with me, I brought pieces of home with me, and that helped me through a lot of it.

    Okay, moving on to step three: evaluate risk and strategized.

    What I want to do here is to pick apart how much of the feeling of danger is genuine physical or social danger, and how much of it is learned associations. And both of those are going to be part of it, they’re both real, I just want to disentangle them.

    I’m not saying that it’s all in your head, I’m not saying that. There is real genuine risk. Noticing what part is physical risk or social risk, and which part of it is our learned association through years and years of experience is helpful.

    In the last workshop, I talked about the difference between clean pain and dirty pain. I’m not gonna get into all of it right now, but I would say look that up. Basically, the clean pain is the pain that you feel when something directly bad happens. Then the dirty pain is the pain that you feel because of how you think about that thing that happened.

    This is very similar. Which part of this is real, physical, or social risk in the moment? And which part of it is my brain remembering risk from the past, and reacting to that?

    So those of us who have had a lot of social isolation, of social risk before, often learn to associate anything other than absolute and unquestioning acceptance with danger.

    But sometimes, we’re so used to not be accepted, or that acceptance being conditional, or being withdrawn later, that even genuine support isn’t believed. Because we keep thinking that they’re about to stab us in the back, they’re about to turn on us, it’s about to go away. So we can never accept their acceptance of us.

    So noticing that as well as is helpful. Sorting out which your fears are present day risks, and which are coming from those associations can be very, very helpful.

    Okay, in talking about risks, I want to talk about people’s reactions. When we start to unmask or disclose our autism. One of the most common things that I see, on Twitter at least, around the #ActuallyAutistic community there is the complaints that someone did the “but you don’t look autistic” reaction.

    (reading the chat) “Oh, I got that!”

    Yeah, or “you’re not like my autistic kid/nephew/person I know.”

    So, what’s going on with that? Sometimes there’s genuine intended meanness there but, most of the time, I don’t think it’s intended meanness. Most of the time, I think that people are ignorant. They’ve been conditioned to believe a lot of lies…

    Yes, also, “You’re making it up.” That’s another common reaction. Thank you.

    So they’ve been conditioned to believe that autism is these particular stereotypes, and they have one, or maybe two, stories about what autism looks like. And they don’t know any different.

    But here’s the thing… When you first started figuring out or questioning that you might be autistic, you probably spent a lot of time reading, and comparing your experiences with others, and searching for answers, finding new questions and searching those down. It took a while, anywhere from days to weeks, months, sometimes years.

    But when you start, that’s all going on in your head. Unless you’re sharing that with the people as you’re going through it, as you’re starting to question, they don’t know that that’s going on necessarily. They’re not processing the same things that you’re processing. They’re not reflecting on your life in the way that you’re reflecting. They’re not slowly and gradually being able to come to terms with this new identity, and reframe their assumptions about autism.

    What they’re getting is often just something that to them looks out of the blue. It’s all of a sudden this person that they know, and they think they know reasonably well, they know what to expect from you, says, “Oh, I’m someone else, and I have this identity.”

    And they don’t have that processing time to themselves, quietly in their own head, to come to terms with that. So the first thing out of their mouth is often an unintentionally insulting ‘rough draft’, if you will, of the process that they may be willing to go through, but they haven’t gone through it yet.

    You’ve gone through it, you’ve gone through a lot of processing, you’ve had time to figure this out, to come to terms with it. They’re not getting that. So they need that same time that you got, they need time to consider what that means, to reevaluate their ideas of what autism is and of who you are. And if you’ve been masking extensively throughout the time that they’ve known you, they might not see what you see, because you’re seeing what’s going on inside you.

    They only see the outside version, they see the masked version, they don’t see the one that is hidden. So “you don’t look autistic”, or “you don’t seem autistic”, or any of those kinds of things, what you’ve been showing them doesn’t look like what they associate with autism, probably because you’ve been hiding it pretty well, or at least to some extent.

    So giving them time to process is really, really helpful for a relationship, if that’s the relationship that you want to maintain.

    Okay, just get some reactions there. Any thoughts on that?

    Okay. So just checking the time, I think we’re doing okay… As usual, we’ll probably about five minutes over.

    Okay, so “how to tell if one masking is safe?” This is one of the most common questions that I’ve gotten. So here’s the algorithm for it, and I’ve tried to make this as general and yet useful as possible.

    So if you act a little bit different from your usual self, from the self that you have presented to other people, and that could be by stimming unobtrusively, or speaking a little more directly, expressing opinions or wishes that don’t necessarily require other people to have major changes, but just a little bit different from how you usually act…

    If they don’t react at all: then it’s probably safe.

    If they question with curiosity, or they talk openly about it, but it’s not in a judgmental way: they’re probably a safe person. You can explain a little bit, or try unmasking a little bit more, that’s going to be okay.

    If you do a little bit different from your usual and they notice, they watch, they wait, they may not comment on it. It’s not no reaction, but they’re just sort of watching: that might be safe.

    If they express concerns, if they ask questions, and they might be clumsy questions, poorly worded in questions, but it’s not… It might even be accidentally insulting… But it’s not necessarily from a place of they hate it. It’s just… they don’t know how to word things correctly because this is not something that they’re used to, they haven’t had that time to process: that still might be safe, you can try explaining and see how they react to that.

    If you act a little bit different from your usual, but they focus only on what this means for them. Not both what this means for them and you, if it’s just about them or if they make one sided demands on you, then that might not be a safe person. Either now or in the near future, they’re going to have to do a lot more work to process, to accept, to unlearn a lot of their negative stereotypes before that’s possible.

    If you act a little bit different to your usual but they penalize it, or engage in abusive or toxic behaviors: that is probably not safe, and it’s not going to be.

    Is this useful?

    Sometimes those least safe people might be the people who are the closest to us, and that’s very unfortunate…

    Yes, please go ahead and screenshot it, I give you permission…

    So those people who are the closest to us partners, parents, whatnot… if they’re in those latter two categories: they’re going to need a lot of time and a lot of patience from you, if you’re willing to put in that patience. And I’m not saying that you should, or that you shouldn’t, I’m just saying that’s what it’s going to take if you want to maintain that relationship.

    Okay, so who can you count on? So here’s the self reflective prompts:

    Which people in your life have you been able to talk openly to about your mistakes and about their mistakes in the past, in other situations? Who has stuck with you even when things got rough in your relationship? When there was disagreement? When someone got upset? Who are the people who were able to work through that? Those categories of people are the people who are likely to be able to adjust to this new understanding of you. They’ll still probably need some time, but they’ll likely be able to make that adjustment.

    Which people in your life are more likely to need a lot more time to adjust and processes new understanding? Which people likely won’t adjust? You can pick and choose who you want to unmask around, and to what extent. It’s not an all or nothing thing, so let’s get into actually making that happen.

    If you want to unmask and you’ve got a plan for who to start with or what situations and times to start with: your nervous system, your anxieties, your memory is going to need a lot of time and genuine experiences of this going well to be able to trust that alternatives to masking are possible. You’re not going to trust it just because some one said that, “Yeah, it’s fine. It’ll go well.” That may or may not be the case, you need to actually experience it for yourself.

    The more real, neutral or positive experiences you have, the better. That’s going to be what actually helps your nervous system disentangle those poor associations, those unsafe associations with your current reality.

    The smaller those experiences are, the more likely that your psyche will believe that they’re are real. So I encourage you, if you want to start unmasking a little bit, to start with just a little bit. Plan out which people in situations are likely to be the lowest risk to unmask around in small doses, and adjust as appropriate.

    This is not an all or nothing thing, so you can start unmasking alone. Start behaving more like yourself, having your own natural reactions when there’s no one around to judge you. No one around to say that it’s not okay. And I get it, even alone that can feel so strange. It can feel unsafe, it can feel weird just because the mask is not just this front that you put on when you’re around people.

    It’s something that… it casts us, it becomes a straight jacket. I’m literally thinking, in my mind, I have this image of a cast around a broken bone that locks us into this. Even when the bone is healed, even when the situation doesn’t call for it anymore.

    That person or the people in your life, often when we were growing up, those that say it’s not okay… Even when those people aren’t running your life anymore, we still get a lot of messages from the world around us that says the same thing. They’re not living with us in our home but it’s still hard to undo that.

    So it’s trying it just a little bit at a time, when you are alone or when it is is genuinely safe. And then just a little bit more and a little bit more over time, expand the circle of people and situations that you feel safe unmasking around. When your nervous system and, your psyche, have genuine experiences of yourself with neutral or positive reactions, more often than not, those feelings of panic, of fear, anxiety will gradually diminish.

    And the “more often than not” is also key, it doesn’t have to be always, but as long as more often than not. It can work.

    So here’s the diagram on how this looks. So you can unmask the majority alone, that’s the big circle. And then you can mask some with people that you feel the most safe with, the most comfortable with. And you can mask a little bit less with the people that you feel somewhat safe or comfortable with. And just a teeny bit, or not at all, with unsafe people.

    You may never unmask with unsafe people. That might be the best thing that you could ever do: not unmask with unsafe people or unsafe situations, especially if you have multiple marginalized identities. Some places and people might never be safe in this current version of our world.

    Okay, so here are a few examples of what those small, medium and large types of unmasking could look like. So small can be acting just a little bit different to your usual. And, again, this is your usual because people are used to a particular version of you, so doing a little bit in from that is the unmasking. Not a little bit different from some stereotypical version of what unmasking might look like. So that could be:

    Here’s just a few examples… stimming or fidgeting unobtrusively, speaking a little bit more directly, expressing opinions or wishes that don’t necessitate other people doing things differently. Those are small unmasking… rearranging personal spaces, because weirdly, even our personal space can be masked.

    Medium versions of unmasking would be unmasking just a little bit more than that new usual, that small, unmasked version.

    It could be stimming a little bit more often, setting boundaries with other people that don’t require major changes, or expressing opinions or wishes that involve other people changing some of their mindsets or some of their habits. It could be changing your style of hair or clothing, or adjusting shared spaces in ways that don’t massively inconvenience other people.

    Then, examples of larger unmasking would be unmasking even more to that last version of your new usual stimming obviously, setting boundaries and holding them more clearly, expressing opinions and wishes that do involve other people changing their mindsets and habits in bigger ways. It could be asking to adjust shared spaces in ways that have a larger impact on others… I did mention asking, because if it’s a shared space, you both have a right to some input on that… Negotiating changes in responsibilities, especially home chores, work tasks or whatnot.

    Okay, so what is your next tiny move? Here Are the self reflective prompts:

    What are some small adjustments that I can make that have little or no impact on others? So that’s a tiny move. What adjustments would I like to have that… Sorry, I got tripped up on my own grammar… What adjustments would I like that do have an impact on others?

    To strategize: What preliminary steps could I take to introduce that idea or build up to that? Again, to give other people time to process the changes, to adjust to the idea. What do the people around me need to know or to understand to be able to accept those changes?

    Alright. So step 5: expect some pushback. I want to talk about change back attacks. That’s a term that Martha Beck’s uses.

    I can’t… put that link in the chat. Oh, thank you, someone else already got it.

    So all the people that you know have some idea of what to expect from you, and they’ve adapted their lives in ways that work with that. Just like you’ve adopted your life in ways that work with what you know about other people, you know to expect (this) from this person, and not to bring up (that) subject with the other person. And you and all the people around you fit with each other.

    Martha Beck describes it like a puzzle piece, like you’re a particular shape and all the other pieces around you fit very neatly with your shape, and you fit with their shapes. And you’ve established this over time, through a lot of natural negotiating of relationships.

    And when you change, it’s like that puzzle piece doesn’t fit in this hole anymore. So in order for it to fit, the other puzzle pieces around it have to change, they have to move, they have to adjust, they have to… it affects the people around you. But the people around you may not always know how to handle those changes in a healthy way, they may not be able to deal with that.

    And instead of expending their energy and adjusting to the new reality, they may try and protect their current reality. They may invest a lot of energy into trying to get you to change back, to go back to the shape that you were. That protects their own comfort, their energy load or the current power dynamics, and that is a completely normal thing. This is very, very common, it’s not a sign that you’re doing anything wrong. In fact, sometimes it’s a sign that you are doing exactly the right thing.

    If the power dynamics and the situation is an unhealthy relationship to start with: your changing that in the right direction, in a positive direction, is going to set other people up. It’s going to be triggering for some of them, and I mean that with trauma triggering, because unhealthy power dynamics often come from people who have been traumatized. If you’re around them, that stuff that you’re gonna have to deal with, and that they are going to deal with. Probably in unhealthy ways.

    So they may criticize you. They may get on your case. They may give you the silent treatment. They may complain about the changes. They may mock the changes. They may make it out as if personal growth is the worst thing in the world. They may say and do some pretty awful things that are designed specifically to get you to change back, so that they don’t have to change themselves.

    So when that happens, you can say… because you know that this is a common thing… You can say to yourself, “Great, I am making positive improvements in life! This is a sign that I’m doing the right thing!” And then go cry in your room because it also hurts… My point is to recognize that this is not a bad thing, this is a sign that you’re making positive growth in your life, and it’s going to take some work.

    So some of those old relationships are going to be worth patiently and gradually renegotiating, and some of them are not. But as you renegotiate old relationships, or existing relationships, people need to know what’s going on inside you, why you’re changing and they need to know what it means for them. That’s not them being selfish, that’s simply a natural human reaction.

    Whenever anything happens, the people involved, all of us think, “what does this mean for me?” So if you can help them understand what’s going on, at the times when you have energy to try to explain, help to get them on board with supporting your growth and give them time to process those changes.

    That process of renegotiating those relationships may be very uncomfortable, because it’s unfamiliar, but it can still be a good thing.

    You might also start wanting to build new relationships, to seek out people who get you easier from the start. And you don’t have to renegotiate it because the person that they saw from the beginning is who you are. When you present yourself unmasked, and if they’re okay with that and want to stick around, and spend more time with that you, with the real you: then great!

    You don’t have to expend the energy to try and change it later. To say, “Oh, yeah, well… that version that I showed you at the beginning, that was just so you would like me, but now I’m really this person, and that person that you liked is not actually me. I’m really this.” Some people can adjust to that, but it’s harder.

    If you just show up and go, “This is me, and I’m weird in this particular way and that’s a great thing.” And they’re like, “Great! I’m weird too, in this other way.” And you both just accept each other and you’re like, “Great, we can be weird together!” That’s just the best thing ever. And it’s nice to have some of those in your life.

    There will be some existing relationships that you’re going to let go because it’s just not worth putting in the energy to work through them.

    Okay, so where do you expect pushback in your life? Here’s the self reflective prompts:

    When you have made positive changes in the past, which people in your life have reacted with sabotage? Or the silent treatment? With insults? With criticism? With gaslighting? Or with refusing to acknowledge the changes? Those are going to be the people who give you the change back attacks.

    Which relationships in your life are worth putting the work into to keep? And how can you explain to those people what’s going on for you in ways that A, you have the energy for, and B, that they might be receptive to?

    And which relationships are, or might be worth, letting go?

    Okay, we’re almost through this.

    So step six: reinforce successes. Remind yourself when things go okay, that it’s okay. You’ve had years and years of things not going okay and you’re trying to make this new change in a comparatively much shorter timeframe. So intentionally reinforcing those successes helps to reteach your nervous system, and your psyche, that alternatives are possible.

    I want to mention here that if you try unmasking, and it goes well, and you get a wave of anxiety afterwards, a few hours later, a day or two later: that is an entirely normal reaction. It’s not a signal that anything went wrong. It’s a protective strategy that some of our brains are very accustomed to doing, to reacting to an unfamiliar situation in a familiar way.

    So you unmask a little bit around this person, it goes well, they accept you, everything’s great. You have a good time, you go home, and a few hours later you are in a wave of anxiety. That’s your nervous system saying, “What I’m supposed to do here is react with anxiety, because that’s what I always do when I’m myself, because in the past that has gone badly for me.”

    Therefore, the unmasking is setting off this protective response, but it’s short circuited the part where it went well. It’s just going straight from trigger to response, trigger to response. Ignoring the whole “but it worked” thing.

    Reinforcing that “but it worked”, “but it was okay”, “but they liked me anyway”, “but it was alright”. That will help to ease that reaction so that association from being myself to anxiety connection will grow weaker over time.

    Does that make sense?

    Okay… Yeah, that whole trigger between unfamiliar situation = crisis, there needs to be a middle ground in there. And that’s what we can do when we’re reinforcing successes. It’s not going to happen all at once, this is going to be a gradual lessening of that trigger response connection.

    Okay, so ways that you can do this… You can do it in a variety of different ways, what I find works very well for me, and a lot of my clients, is talking to yourself, either aloud or in your head, and just telling yourself that it went okay.

    Here’s a few examples of how that might look: You could say, “I went to the store with headphones on and no one gave me crap. It was fine. They didn’t react, it was okay. Right, it was okay.”

    “I went to the store with headphones on and it was okay, no one gave me crap like… it was alright.” And just say it over, and over and over, until the anxiety starts to feel a little bit less.

    Or, for another example: “I stimmed in that meeting and my boss asked about it, I said I was stimming and he moved on to another topic. So he didn’t care, it was fine. Just the fact that someone notices does not necessarily mean that it was a bad thing. People notice things, you notice things all the time, you notice how other people are reacting. But if they notice it and they didn’t make a big deal out of it, they didn’t tell you that you couldn’t, they didn’t make some stupid comment about it.” Reinforce it was alright. It was fine, It was all right.

    Or, one more example: “I asked for something and they didn’t get really mad at me, or complain, or make it into a big deal. They just tried to do what I asked. I wasn’t expecting that, but it was great. Look, they tried to help!” Just reinforcing that I made a request, and it was alright.

    Over time that will be very, very useful to getting used to this idea that at least in some situations, with some people, it’s okay. It’s gonna be alright, it’s fine.

    So, someone asked “But I do tell myself ‘but it went okay’, how do I reinforce?”

    Say it more. This is just one of those things where repetition is helpful. Or it might be changing the wording a little bit to something else. Maybe for you, “but it went okay” isn’t what your psyche will register. Maybe it’ll be something like “and that was perfect”, or “that response was accepting”. I don’t know what it would be for you, but maybe to figure out what it would be for you: Ask yourself what the scared version of you needs to hear to feel safe.

    Okay, so what does count as success? The bar for success is not perfection. The bar for success is not overwhelming, enthusiastic, absolute approval and support in every possible way from every person that you encounter. If the goal is for other people to adapt to and accept us, they need info and neutral or positive experiences over time with us. And we need neutral or positive experiences over time with them.

    How much of those experiences will vary for each individual and each relationship. Some people, two or three encounters with you unmasked somewhat and they’ll be totally on board and no big deal. And they’ll be curious, and interested and want more.

    For some people, it’s going to take a lot more than that.

    And for some people, you’re gonna get a lot of unintentionally insulting comments from them just because they don’t know any better. You can choose to expend your energy into trying to teach them. To some extent, I hope you do at least a little bit of that, if it’s a relationship which requires person encounters.

    But you don’t have to do all of it, you can direct them to websites by other autistics, who have written a lot of good stuff that is intended to help the people in our lives learn more about us. There’s some really good stuff out there, you can direct them to that. If they actually care, they’ll read at least some of it. It might take some time, it might just be a little bit over time, but it doesn’t have to start with perfection. They might not have the words for that, they might not know how to do that even if they want to. But it can build.

    Okay, so here’s a few examples of what does count as success. Again, if the goal is acceptance, any gradual move toward that counts as success.

    A minimum acceptable standard to start with is any reaction from the other person that is not directly abusive, stigmatizing or attacking, counts as at least a minimum bar for success.

    Any neutral reactions to you, counts as success.

    In the furtherance of this goal, of eventual acceptance: any attempt at support, even when it’s poorly worded, or unintentionally insulting, counts as success, because that is something that can be built upon. They simply might not have the wording to be able to do it better, but they want to.

    Any kind of curiosity or openness to learn more is a major success.

    Of course, someone coming at you with straight up support is perfection, but a lot of people don’t know how to do that.

    By the way, if you’re someone who’s in this workshop who would like to express that to the autistic people in your life. Here’s some words that might help, if you want to be supportive and don’t know how to do that: You could say something like, “Wow, thank you so much for trusting me enough to share more about yourself with me. I would like to learn more, would you tell me a little bit more about your experiences or about what that means for you?”

    That is a great script to help further the relationship. Then listen, genuinely listen to them, if they’re willing to tell you about their experiences, and they may not have the energy to do that right now. Accept that too.

    Okay. So, again, reinforcing that you get to choose how much you want to unmask, and with whom, and to what extent. You get to choose how much you’re willing to invest in each relationship, and for different relationships that will be a different amount. Your choices are based upon what you can bear at this time in your life, and you might not be able to bear lots.

    If your circumstances are just generally overwhelming, you might not be able to deal with a lot of that. But when your circumstances change, in this or other areas of your life, you might be able to reevaluate what you’re willing to put up with, or what you’re able to do, or how much you can unmask or with whom, but you never have to do more than you’re genuinely okay with at that given moment.

    That can change moment by moment, and that’s okay. That’s perfect, in fact. That’s exactly what it’s supposed to be, because the whole idea of unmasking is listening to yourself. Listen to yourself about what you feel okay with right now.

    So what is success for you? Here’s the last set of self-reflective prompts:

    Which people are you willing to invest time and patience into their journeys of adapting to the new you? Which people do you not have the energy or the tolerance to do that with? And, as you get more comfortable with your increasingly unmasked self, what do you hope may become possible that isn’t now? And what do you want to remind yourself as you interact with others who’re less than perfectly accepting?

    Alright. So those are the six steps that I wanted to talk about today. There’s maybe… five minutes or so left, in what I’ve got planned. I’m a little over time, as usual. I appreciate those who have the time to stick with it. If you don’t right now, totally fine. You can get the recording.

    Okay, so I want to reinforce that you have power. You get to choose how much to unmask, with whom and where, and you never have to do more than you’re ready to do at that moment. When we do unmask, becoming more visibly ourselves among the perceived neuromajority, we’re expressing our generative creative power to make a better world.

    This is my closing thoughts. This is something that when I realized it, partway through my own unmasking journey, it changed a lot for me. One day I realized that I was born on this earth the way that I am, which means that I have a right to be on this earth the way that I am. You are born on this earth the way that you are, which means that you have a right to be on this earth the way that you are.

    I’m not going to qualify that. I’m just going to say that.

    Okay, so that is what I’ve got for you today and I’m gonna stop the screenshare. I would appreciate any feedback about this, and also I have a short poll on the topic for the next workshop. If you’re interested in putting in your vote to that… Where is it?

    Okay, so I’ve got a few options for the next workshop…

    Yes, I can show that closing thoughts slide again… give me one second.

    I think this quiz will still work?

    That’s not the right slide… that slide!

    Also I’ll display on the screen in a moment my own contact info if you would like to get in touch with me…


    Yes, I will put the feedback link in the chat, and here’s ways you can contact me if you would like to… I’ll also put those in the chat.

    Alright… Someone just DM me if I have a tip jar. Yes, I do. You are not required or expected but since every time someone asks, I do have that available. Contributions are appreciated, but not required or expected. This is genuinely intended to be free.

    Oh the poll is close… If you haven’t voted yet, and would like to, please do so.

    Alright it looks like it’s probably going to be something on energy management, with internal awareness a close runner up.

    Alright, thank you very much, I hope you got something useful out of this and look forward to next time, take care.

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    Picture of Heather Cook

    Heather Cook

    Hi, I’m Heather. I’m an Autistic writer, advocate, and life coach, and I'm building a life I love. I help other Autistics to build their own autism-positive life. I love reading, jigsaw puzzles, just about every -ology, and Star Trek!

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