Unmasking: Small Gains

It may seem insignificant to most, but I recently bought a pair of Vibes earplugs to wear to the barre studio I go to—and I’m proud of myself for it. The classes are nearly an hour long, and they play loud music the whole time. I love music, but it’s often painfully loud at the studio (painful to me at least). My ears literally hurt while I’m there, and I leave feeling drained just from tolerating the noise. Many autistic people are hypersensitive to sensory input—things like noise, lights, touch, smells, food textures, etc. can be painful or at least difficult to cope with. This can result in sensory overload, which may lead to meltdowns, shutdowns, or burnout (I’ve experienced all three).

The reason I’m proud of myself for wearing the earplugs is that I never would have before I knew I was autistic. My ears still would have hurt, but I would have acted like everything was fine because no one else seemed bothered by the noise. This is masking—hiding my discomfort in order to blend in. For a more detailed description of masking and its mental health implications, check out this article by Amy Laurent and Jacquelyn Fede (from Autism Level UP).

Many autistic people mask. Some do it so heavily that they’ve buried their autistic traits far below the surface, and they don’t even recognize that they’re autistic (I didn’t know until age 28 or 29). This may sound like a good thing, like we’re “overcoming” our autism, but it isn’t healthy. An autistic person has always been and will always be autistic. So heavy masking, or attempting to be non-autistic, comes with a cost. It will inevitably lead to burnout, depression, or possibly suicidal thoughts (studies show that autistic people are at a greater risk for suicide).

Masking is both conscious and subconscious. Sometimes it’s intentional, but it’s often involuntary. It isn’t something we want to do, rather we feel that we have to since autistic people are so misunderstood and stigmatized. Autistics, diagnosed or not, know we’re different. Society conditions us to start masking, often at an early age—whether it’s through bullying or teasing, compliance training (ABA), social skills training, others’ negative perceptions of us (i.e. calling us rude for being honest or direct), or even invalidation. For example, if an autistic child expresses discomfort in a noisy environment and they’re told “it isn’t that loud” or “you’re fine,” they’re learning that their discomfort doesn’t matter—that even if they tell someone they’re in pain, no one cares (so why bother, just hide it instead). Or maybe they start thinking their pain isn’t real, since others don’t feel it. If this happens enough, they may learn not to trust their body signals. It may be difficult for them to judge what’s happening in their body and how to respond to it because when they initially responded appropriately, they were dismissed.

I’ve spent most of my life masking, though I had no understanding of what masking was until other autistic people explained it to me. I tend to emulate the people I’m talking to, communicate in “socially appropriate” ways based on non-autistic expectations and communication styles, hide my sensory overload and social anxiety, and more. It’s exhausting and frustrating. I’m very slowly figuring out how to undo some of this.

The earplugs are a small step in the right direction. I’m choosing to care less about blending in and more about my needs as an autistic person (because this is what I want for my autistic clients as well). Will I ever learn to stop masking completely? I have no idea.

Do I think others think I’m weird for wearing barely noticeable earplugs? Yes.

Do I feel a little anxious about the possibility of someone asking me why I’m wearing them? Yes.

Have I already planned out what my response will be so hopefully I’m not caught off guard and stumble over my words? Yes (this is called scripting and many autistic people do it).

Do people actually notice or care that I’m wearing them? Probably not. Either way, I owe it to myself to honor my autistic differences and experiences regardless of what others think. I owe it to my clients as well since my top goals for them are to fully understand their neurology and to feel empowered enough to advocate for themselves.

Wearing earplugs in a noisy place may seem like a simple, insignificant thing to do. But for me, it meant recognizing that the noise was too much to handle, that I didn’t have to keep enduring painful noise levels, that my needs as an autistic person are valid, and that I decided being different was okay. I’m celebrating it as a big personal win.

I’d like to point out that masking is both a blessing and a curse. For those of us that mask, it can be difficult to know who the “real you” is. It’s also exhausting, as it takes a significant amount of energy to keep the mask up (even when it’s happening involuntarily). But, we’re capable of blending in with our neurotypical (and ableist) society. While I view unmasking as a positive thing for myself, not everyone has this privilege, as their safety or livelihood unfairly depends on suppressing their true selves. Those who don’t mask and have more obvious autistic traits may be more likely to experience discrimination or harm, for example, they may lose jobs, get forced into ABA therapy, become a victim of police brutality, etc.

For anyone looking for support with sensory overload due to noise, here's a little info about the Vibes earplugs: they’re affordable (like $23 on Amazon). They’re really comfortable. Most earplugs hurt my ears after a while, but I’ve worn these for up to two hours at a time so far and they don’t bother me. They don’t muffle sound like the foam ones do. I can hear everything clearly, just at a lower volume. They would be ideal for noisy school, work, or social environments since they still allow you to hear others’ and carry on a conversation.

Kaylen Randall, MS, CCC-SLP received her degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She is an openly autistic SLP in Pensacola, FL. Kaylen specializes in aphasia, literacy, developmental language delays, and neurodiversity-aligned support for autistic individuals. Additional information about Kaylen and her practice can be found at www.facebook.com/KaylenRandallSLP.


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