Have you ever entered a room and had no idea how to act? Maybe, after a moment, you thought about making small talk or found an empty table to confidently take a seat. For some Neurodivergent people, “reading the room” doesn’t come naturally. We tend to experience our feelings a bit more intensely than those without “the divergence”, as I like to call it.
I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), among other things, in my late 20s. Truth is, most of the time I love the differences that make me who I am. Let me tell you, the road to acceptance and discovery was quite a difficult journey. As I continued to hyper focus on all things ADHD, a huge revelation of “I’ve been masking my whole effing life!” became so clear. I began to connect the dots like Charlie in that one scene of "Always Sunny". More dots connect every day as I learn from other Neurodivergent individuals and advocates.
What exactly is masking?
In its most basic form, masking happens when an individual engages in social norms instead of their natural behaviors. People with ADHD, Autistic individuals, those who experience anxiety, processing disorders, and/or other disabilities may engage in masking to appear more like their peers. For some, this is a skill developed very early in life that becomes like second nature when in social situations.
What does masking look like?
It’s hard to say. Some are so good at masking that they don’t even realize they’re doing it. Masking can look like making eye contact, filling the dead-air, holding a conversation, balancing the right amount of quirk to be cool, answering or asking questions...all the “normal” things. But at what cost? Neurodivergent people, Autistics especially, tend to engage in behaviors that go against the social norm. Think stereotypy (hand flapping, body rocking, finger tapping), making extreme or no eye
contact, fidgeting, loud vocalizations, avoiding small talk, and zoning out. Because doing these things may be considered "weird" or "annoying" to some of their peers, Neurodivergent people learn to mask to avoid being ostracized, mocked, or stared at and laughed at by their peers. We can’t help it...in general, social acceptance is pretty reinforcing in those life defining years.
This can begin at a very young age and continue through adulthood. As children, teens, and adults observe their environment and the responses to their Neurodivergent behaviors, they learn what is and is not considered to be socially acceptable. This may impact what behaviors they choose to suppress when around others.
Most, if not all, individuals engage in self-stimulatory behaviors when they are taken out of baseline. Clicking a pen up and down because you’re taking a big test, shaking your leg quickly when you’re anxiously waiting at the doctor’s office, tapping your fingers on a keyboard when you’re bored out of your mind at work, twirling your hair in your fingers when you’re thinking about heavy things...these are all deemed socially acceptable self stimulatory behaviors (stims).
So, why are Neurodivergent stims like hand and head movements, loud vocalizations, "extreme" eye contact, rocking, pacing, etc. so different? Why do some Neurodivergent individuals feel so much pressure to mask these behaviors, to hide who they are and what feels good to their brain and body?
Many Neurodivergent adults are learning and sharing what masking is, as well as when and why they may do it. Some individuals have reported experiencing discomfort, exhaustion, and a build up of energy that is scratching to be released when they mask. Others express confusion about what their "mask" is and what their true likes and dislikes are. Even more discovered that they engage in masking without much effort. It’s easier to mask than it is to strip it away and (as I like to say) “raw dog it”
through work, relationships, and daily living. For me, personally, removing my Neurodivergent mask is a daily battle. If you could turn the radio station to my internal dialogue, you’d hear something like this: “Do I have the energy to fake it all day? Is this person going to laugh when I twitch and twist my hands because I’m feeling really nervous about our conversation? Shit, her eyes just got REAL big. Eff, how do I pretend that I didn’t zone out fifteen minutes ago and have absolutely no idea what is going on?! Double eff, pulling the most random fact I know about this topic out of the depths of my brain made this a whole lot more awkward.” To be honest, it’s exhausting to be Neurodivergent in a world that is just barely learning how to not discriminate on the most basic levels.
There are so many ways to be inclusive in your daily life. If you’ve read this far, I’d bet money that you’ve already started. From the bottom of my Neurodivergent heart, thank you. If you are open to reading about inclusivity from a Neurodivergent perspective, please continue with an open mind. I hope to create an environment where all individuals can feel comfortable to be themselves, regardless of if their behaviors are deemed as socially acceptable. But how can I objectively define that? What
does that look like?
I encourage you to allow the people in your life to express themselves however they feel most comfortable. Of course, consider safety, but let the people you care most about be who they are, with no judgment. It may feel uncomfortable allowing the space for ourselves and others to engage in whatever feels the most natural for everyone, and that is okay. You may need to practice finding comfort in the uncomfortable in an effort to support the ones you’re likely thinking of right now.
Difficult conversations with friends and family may need to occur if they stare, mock, or laugh at a person who doesn’t mask their Neurodivergent behaviors. Discuss what disability is and isn’t. Self evaluation also may need to take place, to recognize our own thoughts and beliefs.
My biggest encouragement to you is simple.
Not in a sympathetic way. Not out of duty.
Be kind, because it is the right thing to do. Be kind, because chances are, you have a very close personal relationship with a Disabled individual. Allow space for everyone.
Can you imagine a world without Neurodivergent masking?
I can. And damn, it is so beautiful.
About the author:
Brittany Turner (@beeeturn)
Hi! My name is Brittany. I have a passion for neuro-affirming support and inclusion for everyone. My own diagnosis, and eventual acceptance, of ADHD and OCD has led me to the beautiful world of advocacy. I write to share my experiences, knowledge, and questions about life as a Neurodivergent individual.