By Katie Munday (They / them)

Since my Autistic realisation, I have been able to make more sense of how I fit into the world. I can now make more sense of strange experiences and interactions in my childhood, teens and early twenties: what it seemed to others that I had done wrong, subtext I completely missed and things I was supposed to be interested in.  

I spent 25 years not knowing what was going on, in a flux of confusion and high empathy but also low interest and nonchalance. I was alone but very rarely felt lonely, it was only when I mixed with others that I just didn’t get it. I wasn’t interested in others, I found their subtext frustrating, I just wanted them to be clear with me but when I was clear with others I was called arrogant, rude, blunt and harsh.

I’m at peace now as I finally know the truth – that I live in a completely different culture and world to most others around me and that is totally fine by me.

One of the things that struck me during my journey of Autistic realisation (I’m still on by the way) is that sometimes confusion also comes from other Autistic people and within wider Autistic communities. Some things for me just don’t fit, the idea of masking or camouflaging is a big one. I have been told indirectly many times that all Autistic people mask, especially if we are unrealised in childhood – we mask to fit in, to make life easier for ourselves and to survive in a world that isn’t built for us.

I find the word masking difficult because it suggests that I can play a part and hide away consciously with a fair amount of effectiveness, and that has never been my experience. I suppose I have been lucky, or maybe I just happened to be in unrealised heavily neurodivergent spaces, I believe my scout group was one of those spaces. I have always been very proudly weird from a family of other proudly different people. I was brought up to follow interests and passions which aligned with who I am as opposed to who I was supposed to be. That doesn’t mean life hasn’t been difficult and that I breeze through all social and sensory interactions flawlessly, far from it. It just means that my behaviour has never really been convincing anyone of anything other than what I am.

I don’t mask, I shield.

I have a force field, a membrane by which I can (usually) decide what comes in and out of my inner world, this shield protects me from the confusing bullshit of neurotypical people and allows me to work and live relatively happily within systems which are not built for me and my kind.

The word shielding conjures up images of sorcerers protecting themselves from incoming attack – and I think that is a near constant thing for Autistic people and our communities. It’s the subtle microaggressions we hear every day; ‘everyone’s a little Autistic’, ‘you don’t look Autistic’, ‘oh but you go to university!’. The patronising way that Autistic adults are treated like children and Autistic children are treated like burdens.

We shield to keep these awful things out as much as we can, but we also use shielding in a more positive manner. My shield, like a membrane, is two way, I decide who and what I allow into the inner sanctum and protect myself from the viciousness of the world. There is an immense amount of joy to be had within my shield; stimming, following interests, talking deeply about things and being truly unique.

When I get home, I can lower the shield, as my home and my family are my inner sanctum, there is just no need for the membrane at that point. Coming home and taking down the shield, is like taking your shoes (or your bra!) off, it is immediate comfort.

My shield is brilliant, but it’s taken a long time to build, and it still becomes faulty sometimes – it requires a lot of maintenance which I don’t always have the spoons to keep up. There’s an awful lot of toxic neurotypicality out there to shield myself from but also a great amount of Autistic joy and pride to keep safe.

12 thoughts on “Autistic realisation and shielding

  1. I love this. My son is like this. Perhaps, I may have played a part in his ability to know himself more easily. I’m late diagnosed myself and accompanied with cPTSD so I did mask hugely myself. I wasn’t allowed to discover who I was. My son has adopted my ability to mask when he truly needs to (not without exhaustion) but generally lives his life mostly as you described it here. He has found his interests & coping mechanisms that help him regulate and re energise himself to avoid meltdowns & much less burnout.
    Thanks for sharing this. This makes much more sense for some of the neurodivergent folk I know. They do shield rather than mask. I’m actually learning about myself and slowly adopting this more natural adaptation and letting go of masking…something that I learnt to do via necessity due to dysfunctional circumstances throughout my life rather than organically.
    I now aspire to learn to shield rather than mask for my own benefit. Thanks for sharing your awareness & journey. It has given me much food for thought.

    1. You are most welcome Crystal.

      I’m so glad that you have created a safe, caring and loving environment for your son to be comfortably authentic for the most part. This is something alot of Autistic people don’t have access to.

      Shielding, masking and other responses and tools can take a life time to perfect and they’re different from people to people and time to time.

      I have cPTSD too so I totally understand the need to mask, my intention is not to undermine masking but to show a different story nd technique which hopefully resonates with some other ND folk.

      I’m glad this piece made you reflect on how to make life easier for yourself and I wish

      1. Your post honestly did not take anything away. In fact, I felt, it added valuable insight & perspective.

        I’d say you achieved your intention at least and possibly so much more “food for thought” for many folk.
        Thanks again.

  2. Your post hinestly did not take anything away. In fact, I felt, it added valuable insight & perspective.

    I’d say you achieved your intention at least and possibly so much more “food for thought” for many folk.
    Thanks again.

  3. I love this so much. Thank you for sharing your experience. I definitely masked growing up, consciously (choosing specific interests based on others’ opinions) and unconsciously (mirroring), but I’ve never quite felt like I’ve done it the “right” way, because my “weirdness” (which I own as a badge of honor now) would always shine through and there’d always be a moment of “Jae wtf are you doing?” I definitely shield more than mask now. And it helps to be surrounded by people who are just as ND as I am (finally I’ve found my people). Coming home is exactly as you describe it, kicking those shoes off from a long day of wearing them. My partner is within my innermost sanctum, the only person I can be around 24/7 and not be completely drained. I’m so lucky and grateful to have found them, as it often feels like it’s us against the world, and we strategize how to make an impact out in that world together.

    It’s frustrating that ND people usually have to go past the middle ground to operate in the “default” world, where NT people, if they cared to, could make meeting us halfway happen. It genuinely feels like I’m code-switching, which is probably more than half of what exhausts me day to day when I have to be out of the house. Concentrating on making the right amount of eye contact, on not standing too close or far away, on having a relaxed body language, and having to read between the lines is EXHAUSTING. Life would be so much easier if we just accepted people as they are and were more intentionally direct (direct doesn’t mean we’re compassionless, in fact for me, it means we are being very compassionate). I could go on…

    1. Code switching is definitely very interesting way to think about it, especially when you are LGBTQIA, Disabled, ND, Black, Brown or Asian and Autistic.

  4. I never masked and never had any desire to, because my highest value is authenticity. I don’t actually think I’d know how to mask. That wasn’t because I lived in a comfortably neurodiverse home – quite the opposite. My birth family has a lot of autism, including my mother, uncle and cousin, but I was adopted into a family who didn’t understand me at all. They told me I had bad genes and shouldn’t have children and my father was physically and emotionally abusive. I had no desire to be like them.

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