I’ve seen several posts on social media lately claiming that masking is a privilege.
For those who aren’t super familiar with the world of autism, masking is the ability of an autistic person to essentially “pass” as neurotypical – to copy the mannerisms, slang, body language, and communication styles of the people around them in order to fit in and to avoid attracting negative attention.
Masking is something I’ve done for as long as I can remember, way before I began to consider myself an autistic person in my late teens, and way before I received a formal diagnosis at age 26.
For me, masking is not an ability that I can choose to deploy in certain situations, while refraining from using it in others. This is because, for as long as I can remember, I’ve had something that I refer to as shyness. Shyness, for me, is a disability that makes it impossible for me to be my authentic self when I am around other people. It prevents me from expressing any opinion that the people around me are likely to disagree with, saying anything that the people around me would not expect me to say, or doing anything that the people around me are likely to find weird, strange, or bad in any way. Shyness is not mere social anxiety; it is much more severe and debilitating. I am not merely afraid to do the aforementioned things, or anxious about doing them, or worried about what the consequences would be if I did them. It is literally impossible for me to do them. I physically cannot force myself to, no matter how hard I try, and no matter how strongly I feel that doing the things would logically be the best option in the situation.
What does this have to do with masking?
Shyness, essentially, is the same thing as masking. Or, to be exact, shyness is what causes / motivates the masking. Shyness is the thing that forces me to mask all the time. Because of my shyness, not only do I have the ability to mask, but I also have the inability to not mask. I cannot turn the masking off, no matter how badly I want to.
In case you are wondering how a person could come to have shyness, I am not 100% sure, because I have had it for as long as I can remember. But my guess is that it resulted from one or multiple negative social experiences I had at a very young age, perhaps situations in which I received unexpected negative reactions from other people when doing things that I thought were completely innocuous. When one thinks about it this way, it becomes clear that shyness is actually a form of PTSD. Although the negative experiences that caused it were not life-threatening, my nervous system reacted as if they were, and these same emotions are activated each time I am in a social situation. In other words, every social situation that I encounter, triggers the PTSD. Every social situation triggers flashbacks of the traumatizing events that caused the shyness. The flashbacks don’t take the form of visual and auditory hallucinations of the traumatic events, as is commonly associated with PTSD. Instead, they take the form of re-experiencing the emotions from the traumatic events. My nervous system believes that I will die if I do anything that will be perceived as weird, unexpected, or bad in the eyes of the people around me. Therefore, I am unable to do these things, no matter how certain my logical brain is that I will not actually die or, in some cases, that doing the things is actually the best option in the situation.
The shyness has had a profound negative impact on my life. There are numerous jobs that I cannot do because of the interpersonal interaction required. If a restaurant messes up my order, a service provider gives me a surprisingly high bill, or a store overcharges me, I’m not able to say anything. I’m not able to negotiate with merchants or vendors to try to get a lower price. I’m not able to say no to salespeople who try to pressure me into buying things. If I’m having a problem, I’m not able to ask for help. If I don’t understand something, I’m not able to ask questions. If someone asks me to do something I don’t want to do, I’m not able to say that I don’t want to do it, and usually end up having no choice but to do the thing and pretend to be happy while doing so. The medical system is a nightmare, as I’m not able to say no to examinations, tests, and medical procedures that I don’t want. Perhaps most significantly, for my entire life, neither friendships nor social relationships of any kind have ever brought me the slightest amount of enjoyment, pleasure, or happiness. Social activities are, and have always been, an unpleasant chore, a task that needs to be completed before I can have time to do the things that I actually enjoy. Yet whenever someone asks me to do an activity with them, I have to say yes, resulting in my entire schedule being consumed by get-togethers that I do not look forward to and get no enjoyment out of, with no time or energy for the hobbies and interests that make my life worth living.
Many of the autistic content creators on social media who allege that masking is a privilege, also speak about partners, spouses, children, and close friends whose company they enjoy and with whom they feel truly relaxed and safe to unmask.
Due to my shyness, all of these things are complete non-starters for me. The entire concept of a friend whose company I enjoy is a contradiction in terms. I only feel truly relaxed and able to unmask when I am by myself, or with my statues. (And then I am ridiculed, and called a white supremacist, for my love of statues.) Living with another person, as presumably those with partners, spouses, and/or children do, would be so intolerable to me that I would probably commit suicide if I had to do it for more than a couple of weeks.
Given my experiences with shyness, it is appalling that someone would claim that masking is a privilege.
Those who claim that masking is a privilege characterize it as a tool, an ability. People who have a tool or ability at their disposal, the logic goes, are privileged compared to those who lack that tool or ability. But for a person with shyness, masking is not something that can be turned on or off, depending on what makes sense in the situation. Masking is not something that can be deployed when necessary or advantageous, and left on the shelf when not needed. Due to my shyness, masking is something that I do all the time. There is no choice. It is automatic. It cannot be turned off.
If anything, it is those without the ability to mask who are privileged. After all, it is such people who are recognized by society as being disabled, and who therefore qualify for the programs, funding, support, and accommodations that people with disabilities are entitled to receive. As a person with shyness, I am not able to act in a way that would reveal my disability. I am not able to tell or show others when I am suffering, when I am having difficulties, or when I am struggling with something. My shyness prevents me from asking for support or accommodations, let alone receiving them. Additionally, if someone is unable to mask, that means that they have no choice but to be their authentic self in every situation. This might be disadvantageous in some contexts, but it also means that if they are accepted by others, they are being accepted as their true self. For me, on the other hand, it is impossible to show my authentic self to others, completely foreclosing any possibility of my true self being accepted.
Whereas some people lack the ability to mask, I lack the ability not to. If I am privileged for having an ability that others do not, then by the same logic, people who are able to take their mask off are privileged compared to me, because they have an ability that I do not.
In the posts claiming that the manifestation of my PTSD is somehow a privilege, I am implored to put aside my own feelings and thoughts and instead to listen to those who are allegedly less fortunate than myself. But by the same logic, those whose disabilities are more visible than mine, and who therefore do not have shyness, should be implored to put aside their feelings and thoughts in order to listen to mine. What makes people with visible disabilities so inherently superior to me that being a decent person requires me to put aside my own perspective and instead focus on theirs? Why are their perspectives inherently valid, while mine is inherently not? Why are their voices considered worthy of “centering” and “amplifying,” while my voice is considered worthy only of being dismissed?
Yes, people with more visible disabilities, and more substantial support needs, face challenges that I do not. But as a person with shyness, and a person who has always been held to the same standards as a neurotypical person because I have always been perceived as one, I also face challenges that they do not. I don’t understand why this is considered a controversial concept.
I have always been opposed to the entire concept of privilege. But when multiple people are claiming that a debilitating form of PTSD is a privilege, it is clear that things have reached new levels of absurdity. The concept of privilege has gone way too far and needs to be challenged and spoken out against. Privilege is a concept whose only purpose is to hurt people, to invalidate their perspectives, and to dismiss their suffering.