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#TakeTheMaskOff – Week 6

Week 6 27-2 Sep – Coping Strategies. What can help you not to Mask. Using it purposefully?

As someone who was diagnosed with autism fairly recently (a professional told me I was autistic in October ’17; I took the diagnostic tests to be officially diagnosed in March ’18), I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot over the past few weeks of the #TaketheMaskOff event.

This past week was our first week back at school. I’m teaching a class full of kids with autism. And it’s also the first time I’ve started a school year fully knowing that I was autistic.

All through the training and staff development days I attended over the summer, I have had to weigh my options, and actively consider who I was going to be. What face I was going to present to the world?

How much was I going to share about my autism? How autistic was I going to allow myself to act? Would I tell the entire staff of my school? Would I tell the parents of my students? How much should I talk about autism? When should I not talk about it?

As the days progressed, I realized that there is another side to this. Yes, I have many coping strategies to help minimize my stress and discomfort. Yes, I actively try not to put limits on myself and my stimming. Yes, I’m trying to be more upfront and honest about my autism.

But I am also working to minimize the need to mask by encouraging autism-friendly behavior in others. Many accommodations that would make the world a better place for autistic people would benefit neurotypical people, as well.

The more neurotypical people who wear tinted glasses and high-fidelity earplugs, the more who turn down the volume and dim the lights, the more who utilize online ordering and customizable meal options, the less self-conscious an autistic person has to feel about life.

Living with autism can be so hard sometimes. Not because of anything inherent to autism itself, but because of the way the world around us is. The world often does things a certain way because it’s the way things always been done, and not because it’s particularly good for anyone.

Masking would be much easier to avoid and prevent if we got others to buy into the same accommodations that we are striving for. Many changes would benefit others, while some would have little to no impact on their lives. But it’d mean the world to us with autism.

So what is currently helping me to not mask? Remembering the coworkers who have bought earplugs, covered their fluorescent lights, and ordered the most complicated drinks at Starbucks, without a care in the world. I’m going to be more like them, because they’re being more like me.

I am going to continue being who I really am, as much as I possibly can, but with the same confident approach that neurotypical people have about life. I am allowed to have preferences and accommodations in my life. I do not have to feel ashamed. I do not have to constantly justify myself.

I may still purposefully mask, from time to time, when it makes my life simpler and more convenient, but that is my choice to make. It will take some getting used to, deciding when and where to mask or not mask, but it is my hope that, over time, I will know how to live my best life.

And it is my hope that every autistic person out there is able to figure this out for themselves, as well. Just as we are all very different people under the same umbrella of “autism,” we will all have our own unique, individual way that we live our best life.

I sincerely hope the #TakeTheMaskOff event helps everyone, wherever they are on the autism spectrum, to find a more comfortable and fulfilling place in the world around them. I hope it teaches neurotypical people how to make life better for the autistic people around them, too.

We will all need to work together to make the world a better place, for everyone.

The start of every new school year brings with it countless little questions about the visibility of autism in our classrooms.

When I say classrooms, I also mean the hallways, the library, the front foyer, the cafeteria, the playground, the gym, and so many other places in our school buildings. Each of these educational spaces brings with it certain expectations of student (and staff) behavior.

There are many who expect students to be quiet, raise their hands, do their work, sit still, actively participate – basically, to meet all the criteria of the popular image of how students are “supposed” to act.

But our students with autism don’t easily fit into these neat little categories of behavioral expectations. Some are loud, don’t naturally know how to ask for help, can’t complete their work independently, can’t sit still, and participate in their own special way.

A student with autism may not be looking at you, but you can be pretty sure they are listening to everything happening around them – including everything that is being said about them.

My job as a Special Education teacher is to teach my students with autism both academic and functional / life skills. Social skills fall into the latter category. How to Be a Person 101.

But the question of who gets to define “appropriate social skills” is a complicated one. How much should a student with autism be pushed to make eye contact? To sit still? To not flap their hands? To not be visibly autistic and visibly different from other students at school?

In the end, it is my hope that I can impart to my students what the neurotypical world looks like, while still allowing them to feel comfortable being autistic. I want to teach them coping strategies to prevent or minimize painful meltdowns.

I want them to know how to mask, if they choose to, but I don’t want them to feel as if they have to. Kids feel so much pressure to fit in with peers, and I want to give them strategies to fit in, if they wish to, while also teaching them that their differences are worth having.

Eventually, I want them to know what masking is, what autism is, what stimming is, what neurotypical and neurodivergent mean, and so much more. Most of this may not mean anything to them until they are much older. But I don’t want the only messages they get about autism to be bad.

As you can see, teaching kids about their autism is a very complex process! I’m still figuring it out, translating things from theory to practice. I don’t want them to needlessly suffer, but I also don’t want to suppress who they are.

They shouldn’t have to mask, in a perfect world. But until we get there, I want them to be prepared to fit in, as much as they care to. I want to model for them a way to be both autistic and successful, both myself and professional, both social and solitary. It’s complicated.

But my hope is that someday, it won’t have to be so complicated. Someday, we won’t have to worry about what others are thinking, because everyone will know what autism is and what it looks like. People will understand why kids are pacing and flapping and squealing and bouncing.

I want my students with autism to be happy, but just as happiness itself is a broad idea that we all must individually define, so too is autism. What my autism looks like may not match what my students’ autism looks like, and that’s okay.

They will figure it out for themselves someday. My job is to guide them along their journey, show them multiple ways of being autistic, and give them the freedom to figure out who it is they want to be.

Join the #TakeTheMaskOff conversation on Twitter!


Published by Adriana Lebrón White

Autistic school librarian and former special education teacher. MA Ed in Special Education and MLIS with a focus on Youth Services and Storytelling.

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