Navigating Autism and Masking: Embracing Individuality as a Parent

Ilia Walsh, M.S.Ed, MBA

Ilia Walsh, M.S.Ed, MBA

About the Author

Ilia Walsh is the director of Individual and Family Services at AANE and the creator of the Autism In Real Life Podcast. Ilia is a mom of two young adults, one of which is Autistic. She has over 25 years of experience with families, children, and adults through training, education, and support. Ilia is also a registered yoga teacher and also enjoys painting, dancing, and traveling.

Parenting is an extraordinary journey, filled with moments of joy and challenge. When a child is diagnosed with autism, this adventure takes on unique complexities. Yet my core aspiration as a parent has remained unwavering: to see my son thrive as his genuine self.

Masking is a behavior familiar to many, not just those with autism. It’s a common strategy often employed in various professional and social settings as a protective mechanism to navigate diverse environments more effectively. There are also moments when autistic people face misunderstanding and discrimination, and in these instances, masking can also act as a defensive shield, allowing for safer navigation in these situations. However, when masking becomes a constant coping strategy, it can result in emotional exhaustion, increased stress levels, and a profound disconnection from one’s genuine identity.

Masking takes on various forms in navigating a variety of situations and environments. Here are some examples where masking may occur for our Autistic children: 

  • During group activities at school, a student might seamlessly adopt the behaviors of their peers, even if those actions don’t align with their natural inclinations. 
  • Engaging in social banter might prompt an individual to adapt their communication style to mirror that of their peers, investing significant effort and energy to fit in. 
  • Someone may align their specific interests with the group’s preferences, putting aside their own, as a common masking strategy, chosen strategically to foster a sense of belonging and sidestep potential isolation. 
  • In the face of sensory overload, an individual may conceal their internal struggle, outwardly appearing engaged in conversation while internally grappling with overwhelming stimuli. 

There are lots of other masking strategies individuals may employ to navigate the complexities of their environments, which shows the adaptive nature of masking while highlighting the potential toll it may take on one’s authentic self.

As a parent, I’ve had to confront the delicate balance between my expectations for my Autistic son and the expectations he holds for himself. At times, our visions for their journey have misaligned, and I’ve found myself inadvertently projecting my own aspirations onto him. This unintentional pressure sometimes led to moments of masking and heightened stress. 

Finding the Right Fit

When my son was transitioning from middle school to high school, we encountered challenges with the in-district high school’s understanding of his strengths and needs. Despite his advanced abilities in certain subjects, the school limited his class options due to additional support requirements needed in other subject areas. Frustration set in as we felt they were not fully appreciating his potential.

In response, we sought out a private school, hoping for a more accommodating environment. During discussions with the private high school, we conveyed our expectations — a balance where our son could be challenged in his strengths while receiving the necessary support in other areas. As he embarked on his high school journey in 9th grade, we anticipated adjustments in terms of friends and culture. Academic performance wasn’t as much an issue, but the social toll was evident. Although he made some friends and engaged in a couple of enjoyable activities, the culture was not aligned with his authentic self. For instance, the kids were really focused on the latest sneaker trends, so he tried to connect with peers by becoming interested too. He also tried to minimize his stim of tapping his pencils or his feet to avoid being teased. But the more he masked in ways like these, the more unhappy and stressed he became. 

Heading into 10th grade, our son expressed resistance to returning. We encouraged him, believing it would get easier, but his anxiety at the beginning of this year made us reassess. It became clear that our efforts to engage him in decision-making were influenced by our expectations. The school environment also imposed expectations not in harmony with his true self. We recognized the misalignment and decided to make a change.

On that first day, I visited our public high school, met with administrators, and outlined our son’s needs. Surprisingly, they were supportive, understanding our perspective. Plans were made for his swift return if that was what our son wanted. As I picked up my son from the private school, I couldn’t ignore the heaviness he was feeling. When he approached the car, I took a deep breath and acknowledged the toll the environment had taken on him. With sincerity, I shared that I had met with the administrators of his former school, recognizing that the private school wasn’t the right fit for his well-being. Apologizing for unintentionally pushing him into an unhealthy setting, I told him, “If you want to go back to school with your old friends, we’ve arranged it.” The spark in his eyes mirrored the relief we all felt. Eagerly, he asked, “Really? What do I have to do?” With a reassuring smile, I replied, “You just have to go get your stuff.” In a matter of minutes, he was out of the car, gathering his belongings. The collective sense of relief enveloped us like a blessing, affirming the importance of prioritizing a child’s happiness and well-being over predetermined expectations.

Parenting Principles to Help Reduce Masking

In my commitment to guiding my children through life, I’ve come to understand that my ultimate wish is for them to lead a life that is fulfilling and free from unnecessary suffering. To me, this means avoiding pain caused by a lack of self-understanding or an inability to advocate for their needs. Worse yet would be knowing their needs but not honoring them due to the pressure to meet others’ expectations as we learned with my son’s high school situation. 

To support this journey, I’ve embraced some fundamental principles. 

  • Celebrating and nurturing my son’s uniqueness is paramount, creating an environment where his special qualities, talents, and passions are not just acknowledged but encouraged. 
  • Open and honest communication forms the bedrock of our relationship, providing a safe space for my children to express their thoughts and feelings. 
  • Gaining a profound understanding of my son’s strengths and challenges has allowed me to develop tailored strategies and seek necessary support. 
  • Modeling authenticity as a parent is impactful. I demonstrate the acceptance of my own authenticity, showing that it’s okay to stand out or go against societal expectations. 
  • Building a network of understanding teachers, therapists, fellow parents, friends, and family members, has played a crucial role in supporting my son’s individuality. 

Recognizing that the world may not always be supportive, I’ve tried to instill resilience in my children. They’ve learned that facing challenges is inherent to life, and I’ve worked to equip them with tools to navigate difficulties while preserving their sense of self. Empowering my children to advocate for themselves has been a central goal, teaching them to express their needs and set boundaries effectively, even in situations where their individuality may not be fully embraced. These tools have proven instrumental in supporting my son’s mental and emotional well-being in a world that might not always comprehend him. This approach has also empowered my son to explore his interests, nurture his passions and embrace his authenticity, hopefully leading to reducing the need for masking. I’ve encouraged him to embrace his unique traits, develop resilience, and gain self-confidence. Today, my son has become an authentic self-advocate, and I couldn’t be prouder of his remarkable journey.

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