Note: This an edited version of my reply to a reddit post asking how Level 1/Low support/etc. people experience masking and why unmasking is a big deal (but worth it). There’s a second part where I frame how an undiagnosed autistic person might experience meltdowns and what they might look like. All of this is aimed towards autistic folks who received diagnosis in childhood and don’t understand us old-ass adults who got missed because, well, _most _ people were missed back then; it was a different world in the 80s/90s. [insert some good-natured grumblings about all these young people today, etc.]
Disclaimer: This is based on my own perspective and generalized a bit with common themes I found in experiences with other high-maskers on the internet and in books. I am not intending to even subtly hint that all autistic people have this experience. I wrote it in an accessible way to make it easier to understand, but* it is my perspective only and I do not speak for anybody else*.
What is masking and why is it exhausting? — An analogy from a high-masking late-diagnosed autistic adult
Imagine you are left-handed but the only thing you were told all your life is that it’s “wrong” to use your left hand, so you’re forced to use your right hand for everything. (Aside note: I can’t believe this actually happened only 50ish years ago!) When you use your right hand, you might actually get pretty decent with it and you get used to doing certain things that way.
Now you’re 30+ years old and you’re told that it’s ok to use your left hand and embrace your “left-handed” identity if you choose to. Going back to what’s natural to you should be fairly easy, but it’s hard to mentally accept yourself after a lifetime of believing you were “wrong”. Especially if you feel like you “overcame” your left-handedness in many ways. So you have a lot of internal unpacking to do before you even try to do some tasks with your left hand. That’s unmasking, and why it’s hard. But learning how to unmask is absolutely vital, for the mental health reasons you mentioned. There are reasons high masking is associated with suicide.
[[Now my analogy breaks down here so I won’t fight to keep it.]]
Masking (ie. pretending to be right-handed) is and always will be exhausting, but if you have lots of energy and drive (or just anxiety – that is also a driving force) you get used to some things in life just inherently being really tiring. You may function (almost) perfectly as an NT on the outside, but you’re inconsistent. If you don’t get recovery time, your performance “slips” and suddenly you are getting meltdowns in public (you probably have always had them in private and consider them a character flaw you are embarrassed about), which gives you lots of real-world consequences. If you had a job, it’s gone. If you had a relationship that wasn’t absolutely rock-solid already, it’s gone. You start hating yourself and need all the support, but also don’t think you deserve any support because you are just a bad person. Everyone around you (who wasn’t scared off by your meltdowns) is very supportive of you, but they don’t understand why you can’t ride public transit, or go to the grocery store, or make small talk with strangers anymore. They saw that you have those skills! And you don’t understand why you can no longer do those things either! But it’s about the energy it takes. If you don’t have the mana, you can’t cast a spell (to use a gaming analogy — I’m obsessed with analogies if you couldn’t tell :S), even if you’ve learned that spell long ago and cast it lots of times in the past.
General life stress + aging slowly reduces your pool of mana. You need to cut down on your activities or somehow become more “efficient” at casting your NT “spells”, but they always take a lot of mana, no matter how long you practice them. Meanwhile the NTs around you can cast the same spells instantly with no cost. It becomes another thing you feel ashamed of.
You get to a point where your capabilities cannot match the minimum that is expected of you as a human being. (This happens at a different point for every high masker, but usually seems to be between ages 18-60. Your 30s and 40s seems to be very common.) You’ve probably been diagnosed with depression or anxiety by this point, if not, maybe this is that time. (For me, age 32.) Maybe you are on anti-depressants or had therapy that helped a bit. But that only delays the inevitable. You will hit this point again and again until all your resources for pushing it back have been exhausted. This seems to be when most adult-diagnosed high-maskers get diagnosed. (For me, age 40, though I had an ‘informal’ diagnosis at age 33.)
Then you have to rebuild all your skills, evaluate which of your NT “spells” you just can’t do anymore and figure out alternatives. The alternatives are the “unmasking”, ie. the skills that you should have learned in childhood to be able to get your needs met and contribute to the world (as much as you wish), but you were only ever taught the NT high-mana spells. Unmasking is the process of not necessarily unlearning what you’ve learned, but figuring out a better way for you to get the same outcome that uses less energy (mana). It’s hard work because there isn’t a real you under the mask — you need to build it. But once you do, life becomes much easier to face. I only unmask in private at home but it makes a HUGE difference. Once I learn how to relax, I’ll need to figure out which public activities that I used to do are still possible, and which ones aren’t worth it.
What do meltdowns look like in high-maskers?
Before diagnosis, most of us didn’t know to call them meltdowns. When we were young, some adults treated them like tantrums (ie. acting out to get what you want), or you were told that you’re just being “dramatic” or “that didn’t hurt” or “it isn’t too loud” or “you can’t leave the dinner table till you finish what’s on your plate and stop crying”. But when stresses build up, meltdowns will happen. If you see the build-up, sometimes you can either shut down or dissociate until able to go have your meltdown without the social consequences. (Only some people can learn to do this at all. It took me years to figure out how to monitor myself well enough.) But if you’re shut down or dissociated, your ability to mask goes way down (if not gone completely).
For me, this often looked like going to the bathroom to cry when there was some conflict at work that I couldn’t handle. Rage meltdowns were always harder for me, but in my early adulthood I learned how to channel the rage into crying so I could release the built-up emotion without hurting myself or other people. After a meltdown, I feel drained but otherwise mentally “rebooted”. Once the headache goes away and a bit of mana regenerates, I’m back to my baseline, which for years was fairly “high-functioning” so I’d just carry on… until it happened again. Might be months till the next one, maybe weeks, maybe days, maybe hours — it’s very different for everyone and fluctuates a lot in one person during different times of life. When I was younger, I figured out that if I was in a stressed out, depressed state, I’d get an average of 2 headaches per week. But when I was doing well, it’d be 1 headache per month. I used that to evaluate my own current state and learn how to express how my body and mind felt during those times. Now not all my headaches are meltdowns (but I always have a headache after a meltdown) but it displays the same principle that when you’re doing ok, you have enough energy and resilience to handle what happens to you. But there’s a point where it’s too much and you’ll pay the price. Note that I believe this absolutely happens to NTs as well, but they usually have a bigger energy pool to start with and a much better social support system — so the threshold for them is much higher and often requires exceptional circumstances or other mental conditions. For masked undiagnosed autistics, every day life is stressful enough that it builds up and it becomes even more frustrating to not understand what’s going on. That’s why the diagnosis is a huge relief for many of us — we learned that it’s not our fault, we’re not broken.