Halloween is my favorite holiday of all time, beating out even Christmas in my book. Ever since childhood, I have enjoyed celebrating the fun, quirky, and mysterious. I love playing dress-up, watching scary movies while eating tons of candy, lighting candles and decorating, pumpkins, ghosts, goblins… all of it.
For most, Halloween is the only time of year where they would ever wear a mask. Halloween is a novelty that allows you to be someone (or someTHING) else for a time, party it up, then go home, take off the costume, and head to bed completely yourself again. And that’s part of the magic of it. You can be anything you want to be for one night a year.
But there are those who wear a mask every day. And it doesn’t feel quite so fun.
Masking in the context I’m discussing today is a neurodivergent person’s ability to “fake” socialization and fitting in enough to “pass” as neurotypical. This ability to shapeshift and match others is a coping mechanism to help the neurodivergent person fit in with those around them without standing out.
We’ve all done it at some point. Picture that time as a teenager that you copied the clothes that the cool kids were wearing, or that time that you acted sickly sweet to impress your mother-in-law, or that time that you put on a boss-lady-face to impress someone in a job interview. Perhaps you identify as a member of a minority or otherwise diverse group, and you have sometimes felt forced to hide that piece of yourself. Though you may not be up for an Academy Award for your performance, you know what it feels like to act a certain way to get what you need or what you need, whether that be attention, acceptance, you name it. Chances are you were pretty tired after that experience because you had to exert more energy to think about what you were going to say, do, and wear. You were hyper-focused on the other person’s reactions to make sure that you were on track and they were buying your act. There are a lot of moving parts to being something that you’re not.
For a neurodivergent person, the exhaustion of masking is a daily reality. There is something about ourselves that feels “less than” or “not good enough”, and we have to do everything in our power to hide that facet of ourselves from the world, or risk confirming those fears.
If someone finds out that I’m Autistic, they’ll think I’m a freak and make fun of me.
I really need to stim because I’m getting stressed out… but someone will think I’m going to hurt them.
I’m feeling really overstimulated, but I can’t take a break because my supervisor will think I’m lazy and they might fire me.
For many neurodivergent people, masking is a daily necessity to survive. This is the reason many neurodivergent people come to counseling noting that they are really stressed, burned out, or panicky about social situations. Masking takes quite a toll and requires an extreme amount of effort for a person, much less a person who struggles with processing information and social cues already.
What sets neurodivergent masking apart from the more common masking that neurotypical people engage in is the experience. For a neurodivergent person, masking is traumatic. There is a fear of survival that kicks in, and there is immense amounts of anxiety. The worst part is that it is a very common experience for neurodivergent people to have spent so much time masking throughout their lives that they barely know who they really are at all. Who is beneath the mask?
It is incredibly important for neurodivergent people to be given a “safe place” where they can explore and be their true selves without fear of abandonment or disapproval. Autistics, ADHDers, and other neurodivergent people represent a beautifully diverse, creative, and intelligent part of humanity, but they are often kept from flourishing for fear of what others will think. Our society would benefit from hearing these voices as they truly are because they bring a different perspective than what we have always heard.
For the rest of this week, I will be highlighting a few tips, tricks, and facts about neurodivergency so that you can better understand and help the neurodivergent people in your life to feel more supported in being their beautiful and wonderful selves.
I’ll always love Halloween the best, perhaps because it is the one time a year where things that are odd, scary, and different are celebrated instead of judged.
Ally Kennedy, LPC
Ally Kennedy works primarily with neurodivergent people of all ages (including Autism, ADHD, learning differences, etc.). She also enjoys working with adolescents and adults struggling with anxiety.