Unmasking Autism: Joy and Pain

This last month has been a journey for me, and forced me to reflect deeply on my own experience in this world as a late-diagnosed autistic person. As I work on unmasking autism(i.e. stop trying to fit into neurotypical norms), I’m finding both incredible joy, but also tremendous pain as I seek to find a place in the world that doesn’t hurt.

I have always been a teacher. I love learning because the world opens up in new ways when you know more. However, like many people, and especially autists, if I am not inherently interested in the thing, I have great difficulty focusing and really taking it in. It’s almost like the learning part of my brain gets short circuited by the SPIN (special interest) part of my brain. Much of what autistics determine as a SPIN comes from a mysterious pleasure center of our brains, but it is also heavily influenced by our values and what we deem important enough to give our attention. For instance, while I love watching other people do makeup, I do not care enough about my own or others’ physicality enough to learn it myself. In my brief interludes of make-up attempts, I lose interest quickly as I find the whole process a sensory nightmare, requiring a focus on the physical that is antithetical to my way of being in the world.

Autistic people don’t “fake it” well -
when unmasked.

Since I finally got my autism badge (no, that’s not a real thing; I mean my formal diagnosis), I have been doing a lot of intentional unmasking. Letting myself stim or retreat when necessary; trying to pay closer attention to my body’s discomfort, so I can make it less dis-eased. That means I tap, bounce, rock, and other things; I’ve become accustomed to a sense of quiet in my surroundings and my brain. I have not learned fully to turn-off my internalized ableism, but I am working on it because it does not make me a more productive person. It just hampers my ability to be fully present and alive. And isn’t that really the goal?

Every Autist is a Different Autist: That’s why it’s a spectrum.

Although there are plenty of autistic people who teach in the school system (I can think of at least 3 in my current place), they either mask extraordinarily well, or they are immune to the particular sensory hell of a high school setting. My guess is the latter. Autism comes with a certain sensory profile, and some people are sensory-seekers or hypo-sensitive (i.e. their experience of some senses is muted) or both. My son, for example, is a sensory-seeker, and is what I call “nose-blind”. My guess is there is so much input from other senses, that the smell just doesn’t register as there or important by his different neurology. Me? I am sensory avoidant person and my sense of hearing and smell are STRONG. So deciding to teach algebra at a high school was a terribly poor choice for me. 

Unmasking for the past year has made it even harder. My reactivity has been activated, and I don’t know where the off-switch is. While the joy in unmasking is great – my body feels my own in ways I had not previously experienced, the pain is also extraordinary.

Our school system is in crisis, but it is so damnably ableist, I cannot help save it.

I wanted to help students learn. I wanted to share my own love of learning (how it’s all connected, and each discipline mingles and explores with the others), but instead I am pushed each day to sensory overload and emotional dysregulation. Meltdowns upon arriving home are common. So I am leaving this profession – sadly, and with a lot of guilt. Guilt for my fellow autists, my students who have no choice but to suffer in that space. For whom there is no out and no way forward. Those who have to build a world of dreams or a bubble of apathy to make it through. We are failing them as a society, and yet we will judge them by the skills they did not have the energy to learn.

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Another blog I trust that covers information about living with autism and how to do it well:

Nicky Collins: The Autism Coach

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