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What's The Hardest Part of Unmasking? Remembering.

For many late-identified autistic individuals, we began masking at such young ages that it altered our ability to remember our own experiences. As well, many learned to dissociate as a coping mechanism, which further affects our memory and can have long-term effects such as difficulty focusing, gaps in our memory or amnesia, emotional numbing, and so on.

Can the average person remember early childhood memories? No, not always. But it goes much deeper for us Autistics. Why? Because most of us weren’t allowed to be our authentic selves growing up, let alone allowed to figure out who that was in the first place.


I've told this story before, but I'll tell it again.


I remember consciously masking by the first grade. I would have been five years old, six max, given I have a December birthday. I looked lost in thought, zoned out from the math problem we were working on, so the student teacher recommended a "thinking" face. Apparently, there's an expression you can make that lets those around you understand you're just thinking. I thought it was ridiculous.


But think about it. I was five years old. Five. Someone was already commenting on my lack of facial expressions and offered a fix, a solution to my problem. I wasn't aware enough to notice this myself, but I was aware enough to think that this sounds important and I should change this because it's wrong and I don’t want to be wrong.


I remember spinning in office chairs or clicking my tongue and my mother telling me to stop. I remember eating foods in a particular way, I had a step-by-step process, and overhearing adults in my life commented how weird it was, so I stopped that too.


I know there's likely a lot I don't remember and never will. I know this because when I was working on getting a diagnosis and falling down the research rabbit hole, I didn't believe I stimmed. Like at all. I thought it was the one criterion I didn’t fit and never would. But when I started unmasking, I began remembering the things above, the behaviours I'd intentionally stopped myself from doing to appear normal. How many more have I forgotten completely?


Now, it wasn't all bad. I didn't have to hide every autistic trait as a child. My mother and I were a lot alike, you see, we both enjoyed math and working with numbers, organizing things like our movie collection, making lists, straightening photos on walls, shutting cupboard doors because who leaves them open an inch and just walks away.


Some of my behaviours were never problematic because they were normalized in my family. I highly suspect my mother was on the spectrum and likely a majority of that side of the family as well.


Unmasking is a slow, ongoing process, a sort of journey all its own. To unmask is to tap into my mind and body in a way I never have before.


But I'm working on it.


I'm learning to listen to my body and what it needs. I'm learning to recognize when I'm tired and it's time to slow down or take a break. I'm learning that I need to wear earplugs when I go grocery shopping or I will become overwhelmed and overstimulated. I'm learning to accommodate myself without feeling ashamed or guilty.


I'm also realizing there are things I do that I don't know I'm doing. Apparently, I blink frequently when I'm nervous and the rare occasion I have to give a presentation I start to mumble and speak much more quietly than I think I am. These behaviours are things that others can notice and talk to you about. We can only be so self-aware. We can only know what we know. We can only remember what we remember. And that's ok.

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