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Talking About Invisible Disabilities: Masking

October 14, 2022 / Invisible Disabilities

Three women with diverse ethnicities study together on a blanket in a field. One holds a notebook, one wears headphones around her neck and holds a book and a pencil, and one is typing on a laptop on her lap.

by AACs Writing Intern Angela Lika

In this second part of my invisible disability series, I’ll talk about mental disabilities and how we often conceal our symptoms at the cost of our physical and mental well-being. "Masking" and "stimming" are terms used by neurodivergent individuals to describe these experiences, so I’ll spend time detailing what that looks like from a child and adult perspective.

Read Part 1 of this series.

Masking Your Invisible Disability

For many people with autism or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), choosing when to mask becomes a unique struggle that changes from situation to situation. 

“Masking” is when someone purposefully hides their disability to pass as nondisabled. Although this term is often used for people who are neurodivergent, many individuals with other disabilities relate to masking as well.

However, hiding your disability from others becomes difficult when it starts to make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.

A huge factor of my own masking came from fear. Throughout school, I never wanted to stand out because I didn’t want my teachers to label me as a “bad” kid who needed detention, write ups or a phone call home to my parents as a form of discipline. 

I was restless in class and needed outlets to stimulate these “bad” impulses that I couldn’t control. Excessive walking, touching certain textures with my hands and switching as many topics as I could while talking were all my unique ways to “stim.”

Since I was just a kid, I thought I had to pass or face punishment for my stimming behavior.

So, I masked because I wanted to blend in with my peers. I masked so well in school that my parents were confused and shocked when I started to crumble from the pressure of passing and instead displayed symptoms of frustration at home.

Why was I having sensory issues regarding noise? Why did I mentally “shut down” and use physical self-harm when I was angry or frustrated? Why was I “suddenly” not normal?

Truthfully, this forced masking only made the problems with my school and home life worse. I passed so well that my teachers didn’t believe I needed extra time on quizzes or homework. I passed so well that my public meltdowns became a spectacle in which people gawked over my behavior, watching as I sobbed and hit my head and limbs against a wall.

These struggles have followed me into adulthood and have worsened. The stakes surrounding my college journey and job are now higher than before, leaving me often unsure about how to advocate for myself. 

I’m afraid of jeopardizing the success I have because people in my field of study or work might think I’m unable to handle the responsibility. I’m anxious that one day my masking will fail, and then I’ll be exposed as a “fraud” who lied to my peers about who I am. 

I don’t want to make myself vulnerable because vulnerability can become ammunition for other people to use against you, too.

For a long time, I thought I was the only person who had to force myself to pretend to be someone I wasn’t. Through life experiences and online advocacy, however, I learned that a lot of people who are neurodivergent have these issues as well.

Turns out, many adults go through their lives masking around their neurotypical friends, family and coworkers. We have been conditioned to mask for different reasons. Some of these reasons can come from embarrassment or even wanting to avoid bullying and harassment.

Forcing us to hide this part of who we are also takes away our sense of autonomy. Many neurodivergent adults find comfort with stimming and often fall back on these behaviors to cope with sensory issues like noises, textures or emotions before they start to fester into meltdowns.

Aside from comfort, stimming can also offer a sense of control for many children and adults. While some people might find certain stims odd, like repetitive movement or noises, these behaviors can help us focus on a single sensory output, which creates better feedback with our emotions instead of feeling mentally and physically overwhelmed.

So, when I saw other neurodivergent adults talk about their experiences, I realized how compulsive our masking has become. Many of us don’t mask for ourselves but to appease others.

Now that I can mask to the point of passing, it can be hard to prove I’m struggling when most people look at my performance and see positive marks. Why would I need accommodations for school or work when my grades and work ethic prove otherwise?

Looking back, I wish I would have asked, “Why do you assume people with disabilities can’t be excellent at academics and careers to begin with?” 

Many nondisabled people might assume that we don’t need to ask for help if we’re successful in school or work. Yet, when we meet these expectations and consistently perform well in our environment, our disability is hard to believe.

We can only mask for so long before our mental and physical state starts to become stressed or exhausted.

For many people with invisible disabilities, we sacrifice so much of ourselves trying to blend in with our peers. Speaking for myself, I’d like to become a person who isn’t wholly dependent on masking. I think this journey has to start with self-acceptance, but we also need nondisabled and neurotypical communities to understand our struggles as well.

Angela Lika is a B.A. student at The Ohio State University who writes professionally. Angela’s areas of interest include literature, video games and disability studies—specifically combining all three and analyzing them together.