On Hiding and Seeking Autism Traits

The concept of ”hiding autism traits” is quite commonly used especially when discussing autism on women. I can only hope this will change one day, since this notion is a poor description for the phenomenon it attempts to describe.

First issue is, that talking about ”hiding” refers to intentionality. However, autistic masking is not nearly always intentional or freely chosen behavior. Display of autistic traits and behaviors is quite heavily sanctioned in our culture, which means, that when people mask, they do so under pressure. Failure to successfully mask may have serious consequences. Often, autists are also actively encouraged to try to appear as neurotypical-like as possible even when it means masking, so it is possible that we don’t even always know what ”just being yourself” might mean. The belief that an autist is doing the better the more they display neurotypical behaviors and the less they display autistic behaviors is also quite common. However, that is not true at all- conscious or not, masking always happens at expense of the autist’s own wellbeing and increases their stress load.

Second problem about using the term ”hiding” is, that even though masking is as behavior associated with autists, it is far from being a behavior restricted to autistic people. In our society, all oppressed minorities try -and experience pressure to try- to conceal traits revealing their minority position. In Finland, we have an entire generation of sámi people who did not learn sámi language from their parents due to oppression and assimilation pressure sámi people faced at the time. We have members of religious minorities who ”choose” not to wear symbols of their faith out of fear of discrimination and even violence. Among LGBTQA+ people terms such as ”being closeted” and ”coming out of closet” are still used commonly. In practice, all of these instances are about the same core issue: not behaviors chosen out of free will, but avoidance of showing off minority traits out of- often well justified- fear of facing discrimination and even violence. Instead of marveling at these behaviors, we might be better off asking, what is wrong with the mainstream culture that so obviously has such serious problems with accepting diversity of humanity? Responsibility of correcting this slightly dishonest-sounding ”hiding” thing should not be laid on oppressed minorities. Forcing some members of minorities into the role of a trailblazer who dares to openly display minority traits while taking a high risk of actually ending up suffering from all the hostility the society has in store for people who dare to break the oppressive norm of masking and being ashamed of being in minority before change in value takes place. The only viable solution is, that the majority questions the rigidity of its norms, as well as its right to frame oppression as a somehow justified and understandable reaction to ”provocative” displays of minority traits.

Finally, since autism is still poorly understood in our society especially when it manifests in people differing significantly from its very narrow prototype case of little boys and people with obvious developmental disability (eg. on women, people of color, people from non-Western cultures etc.), talk about ”hiding autistic traits” sometimes means simply framing neurotypical people’s ignorance and failure to recognize autism outside the narrow prototype as a minority trait. In practice, being unrecognized as an autist can cause real and big problems for an autistic person, but it is not their fault, nor is it even something they could help by behaving somehow ”better” or ”being more honest”. Personally speaking, I learned at one point, that one of the reasons why obtaining diagnosis was hard for me was, that I apparently don’t ”dress like an autist”, whatever that means. While I never received my copy of autist uniform regulations in mail, I can tell that when I was finally able to get tested, it turned out that I’m not a ”borderline case”. My autism traits were quite distinct and usual in every way. I was ”hiding” nothing. Autism simply is diverse- and that’s all good and well.

Would you like to understand autism as a minority status better? Kaiao is happy to help! Just drop an email to saara.reiman@kaiao.fi, and we can get started!