In this commentary, neurodivergent psychology writer Alex Ashley Fox takes an honest look at the economic and emotional tolls of autistic masking.
This commentary is part of the Voices of Disability Economic Justice Project, a partnership with TCF’s Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. Voices of Disability Economic Justice showcases disabled writers’ first-person perspectives on the economic issues that matter most to them.
Content note: this piece mentions suicide. If you or someone you know are in need of support, please consider the following resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
En Español: 1-888-628-9454
For people who are deaf/hard-of-hearing: 1-800-799-4889
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
My boss is talking to me, and I swear I’m trying to listen. That’s what I’ll tell myself later, when I realize he was talking to me for nearly fifteen minutes and I hadn’t heard a word he’s said. Ever since he criticized me for failing to make eye contact I’d been on high alert, carefully laboring to administer what I imagine is the “just right” amount of eye time. I’m autistic, so it’s not easy. In a precisely segmented dance, my eyes darted from the center of his forehead to his earlobe, from his mouth to the tip of his nose. I hoped I was doing a good job. I really had no way to tell.
I was doing what’s called “masking”: compensating for and concealing my autistic traits so I can meet the expectations of a neurotypical environment. In addition to managing eye contact, masking can also include mimicking gestures and facial expressions, self-policing posture and speech, suppressing sensory discomfort, and “scripting” social encounters. For myself and many other autistic people, masking allows us to carve out a way to exist in a world that was not designed for us. It’s often the only way we can succeed in typical work environments. While a number of us successfully “pass” as neurotypical, none of us do so without cost.
My management of the social graces that come so effortlessly to neurotypicals demands enormous cognitive resources. During my conversation with my boss, eye contact occupied my attention so thoroughly that there was no way for me to focus on what he was saying. I flubbed a deadline because of this, having not heard him give it. I had no excuse that sounded reasonable.
During my conversation with my boss, eye contact occupied my attention so thoroughly that there was no way for me to focus on what he was saying.
Despite the cognitive and emotional costs, masking is a necessity for most autistic people. It’s a matter of social survival in a world that isn’t welcoming of the full spectrum of the human condition. But while masking has allowed me and other autistics to function in this world, this constant performing would wear down even the most theatrical soul.
For an autistic person, the constant strain and inauthenticity of masking is an exhausting and corrosive psychological burden. For high maskers, this can lead to overall worse mental health outcomes, putting us at risk of depression, anxiety, and autistic burnout, and even driving some to thoughts of suicide. For the organizations autistic people work for, this can contribute to greater rates of workplace errors, decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, and potential higher health care expenses.
The cost to society at large is immense. There are an estimated 5.4 million autistic adults in the United States, and while only half participate in the labor market, sufficient accommodations for those that do are rare. This leaves autistic adults to mask their experiences in order to fit into the working world, forcing us to split their attention between their job and “looking normal” for the benefit of the rest of the team.
Autistic employees work best when we have the right accommodations for our specific needs. But while every autistic person is different, autistic adults broadly seek independence, control over sensory environments, tailored working schedules, accommodating management styles, and acceptance as important members of the team. When organizations fail to provide accommodations, they lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars of productive energy every year, as cognitive resources devoted to masking go unused for other tasks, forcing autistic employees to operate at a percentage loss. But when given the support we need, autistic people can become the most productive, valuable, and reliable members of an organization, uniquely capable of the deep insights that lead to transformative growth.
I eventually left my job, in part because I struggled to manage the social expectations of the role no matter how mightily I tried. I’ve since embraced the world of self employment. I almost immediately discovered that I was dramatically more productive when left to my own devices, far away from the micromanaging and social pressure of the traditional workplace. It felt almost relaxing. Now unleashed, my productivity was enormous. This was something my last job had completely missed out on.
Until we give autistic employees the self-determination to create working environments that work for us and reduce the pressure to mask, society will continue to lose out on the full contributions of autistic people–contributions that could change the world.