Neuro-Mask Off: Consciously Forgetting How to Mask

One thing many neurodivergent people learn early on is how to mask their divergence. We try to fit ourselves into the boxes made by and for neurotypical folks. But those boxes cannot contain us because they are made for people whose brains are wired a particular way. To have other wiring is to fit into no box, to find little comfort in neurotypical social interaction, to pretend oneself into being an alien in one’s own body.

I’ve been ‘masking’ my whole life unknowingly. It’s something done unconsciously. However, the metaphor of masking is not new to me: when I was a teenager, it was frequently on my mind, along with the idea of performing a role. But I was trying to stay in the closet, and then, after I came out among my friends, I was trying to stay in the closet within my family for as long as possible—this is the kind of ‘masking’ that was the masking on my mind then.

But I’ve been masking in other ways too: as a typical academic who writes in a dispassionate voice with a focus on preservation of consensus above all else. (Yuck!) As part of performing the part of a typical academic, one is to scrub oneself of creative impulses and really any impulses writ large. We are not fans, we are scholars. We do not ‘read’ novels, we study them, and we certainly never stray into writing fiction or literature—not if one wishes to be taken seriously anyway. My mentor in the department told me a couple years ago that it was time for me to “come out as a writer” in the department. I found his wording striking, but he went on to confirm that he meant it literally: a coming out, a de-closeting, another exposure. (Well this site is part of that, so my fingers are crossed even as they type.)

What does masking look like for neurodivergent folks? That is one thing I could not say and would not even attempt to. There is no One Neurodivergent Experience. Divergence means diverging in divergent ways. There are any number of ways to wire a brain, just as many ways as there are neurodivergent folks.

That said, I can speak for myself. Masking for me has meant a series of contortions and confusions. I have tried to adapt myself to various sets of instructions, having to attempt to piece together the unspoken to set alongside the explicitly given, though I have always felt this feeling of destabilization, like a smooth-running river thrown into a sudden disarray by rocks unseen below the surface. Trying to hash out what exactly a teacher or professor wanted with some of the (often well thought out) rubrics they would give me. The questions they’d ask for essays or on exams always puzzled me because I couldn’t understand what the question was asking, why was it asking that in that way, what kind of answer do they want from me (and why did it always end up being such an easy/boring question)? Math was a lot simpler in that way: there is (usually) only one answer and the steps to arrive at that answer are (usually) clearly laid out in multiple formats. I can appreciate why so many other neurodivergent folks end up in mathematics and math-heavy fields. But the formulae bored me each time after I figured them out so math never stuck for me.

Masking for me has looked like struggling to get through a series of academic obstacles without any idea of what was expected of me, what I should expect of the experience and of myself, what I should expect to produce, or, most important of all, how I was to go about preparing for facing any given obstacle. Essays are simple enough, especially for someone like me with a thousand opinions who thinks in print, even if I never understood how I always met expectations for essays, often exceeded expectations. But what about “qualifying exams” and “comprehensive exams”? What about the “thesis” and the “dissertation”? What the hell is an “oral comprehensive exam”? How do you study for that? How do you envision that to prepare yourself for that? Well I don’t know how you would, have or will, but my typical move is just to turtle up into my shell and wait for the threat to pass, so I’ve done nothing much prep-wise. Nothing that, retrospectively, I can say did much for me when it came to facing any of those hurdles I’ve faced.

Being direct about the challenges, especially outlining explicitly my exact divergences from The Way Things Are Done, and then also suggesting a modified way things can be done by me, and above all always using the secret password ‘accommodation,’* these are the things that have worked for me. Granted I only had the opportunity to implement them once because I only just realized my neurodivergence within the last couple years, but it worked fabulously and that professor told me that speaking out like I did taught her about how to work with neurodivergent folks. It’s one thing to want to accommodate, but it’s another to know actually what would be useful. For me, it was flexibility, and now that professor knows more of how to be flexible and can tell others.

I’ll be specific: it was a written comprehensive exam (I chose to do the written as a Latin exam and then oral comprehensive exam as a Greek exam, except after I did both I realized I should’ve done it the other way around, as usual when I don’t know what to expect). The typical preparation, which you do with a faculty member over a semester with whom you meet regularly one-on-one, is to read a certain amount of a text (Latin, in my case, specifically the first three books of Horace’s Odes) and then also certain secondary scholarship with it, every week—and, as an added hurdle, I had to come up with the secondary things to read in a field I had no experience with (bc I study Greeks, but classics curricula requires both Greeks and Romans, but that is a whole different complaint).

I don’t work like that, at all. I don’t know what I’m actually thinking about a work under consideration until I’m writing the essay, and I don’t know what I’m writing about until I’ve read the work through. Something that seems big in the beginning can prove in the end to have been nothing; something unnoticed at the start can become glaringly significant by the end. That is the nature of literature. And it takes me a good bit more time and effort to work through an ancient text than other students. Maybe I’m dedicating too much time, reading it too closely—but that’s always struck me as misguided, me with my AD/HD and autism. Now I realize the view is misguided for my case, but would maybe be overkill for a neurotypical person. (To be fair, once I’ve read something, it has been read lol, as all the annotations show.) So it takes me a lot longer to get through an ancient text, but I get so much more out of it when I take my time. And more importantly, I don’t care much what someone else thinks about what I’m reading until I’ve had the chance to form a thought. Reading someone analyze a work I haven’t finished is beyond useless when I don’t have a specific position to be reading from; without a reason to read it, I retain nothing. I’ve learned that over and over in seminar after seminar (which are set up exactly like the written comprehensive exam, except usually the professor picks the topic and readings).

So I explained all of this and suggested that since this professor has read a few of my papers, including a 50+-page seminar paper of mine, that she could trust that I would do the secondary leg of the exam, and we could even meet to discuss secondary things, but only after I finished Horace’s first three books of Odes (I didn’t have time for the fourth, but it was written much later, so it’s almost it’s own thing—but only almost). She was reluctant but she agreed to do things my way since it didn’t impact her one way or the other. Same amount of time, just in a different order: I may be neurodivergent but I am capable of exceptional work provided I’m able to follow divergent steps. In the end the paper was pretty good, actually one that I’m proud of, on Hermes as one of Horace’s chief poetic patrons, something I have in common with the esteemed Roman lyricist. I thought I was picking up on that as I was reading, and lo and behold after I finished the essay I even convinced myself. (Jenny Clay Strauss wrote a paper a while back saying something very similar, so if I’m wrong, I’d be happily wrong in the estimable company of Clay Strauss). Fun fact: Horace and I both have Hymns to Hermes, but mine is in dactyls (Homer’s meter), whereas Horace used Sapphic stanzas; I think perhaps in the end both of us turned to Hermes for the same thing, guidance in this life and beyond.

Anyway, the point here is that being direct about what does and does not work for me worked for me. That would not have worked with every professor or teacher I’ve had. I remember my high school algebra teacher was intense about attendance and sitting in class. Even at a moment of tragedy when I was forced to go to school instead of stay home to grieve, my algebra teacher was the only one who refused to let me sit in the hall for the class. Nothing like my experience with the comprehensive exam would have worked on her (but then again, aside from that week when I should have been at home, I never needed anything extra from that class because my mind works in algebraic equations anyway and the way she ran things was amazing). But I guess it isn’t fair to say this person or that person would have been empathetic, because I really never expected anyone to listen, not even the professor who ultimately did listen.

It’s up to each neurodivergent person to realize fully that neurotypical folks have no conception of how you operate because they cannot—not from any deficiency on their part or yours but simply due to the nature of the difference. I grew up convinced everyone thought like I did, knew what I knew, and would respond as I would respond. I could never understand when that didn’t happen, and it would make me furious. Only now do I realize the scale of the difference between me and most other people, that my mind sees the world differently, assesses and processes information differently, and utilizes that data to negotiate the world around me differently.

So the lesson I’ve learned is that to ‘unmask’ means to be direct. To state clearly ‘this specifically is what doesn’t work for me, but this other way would work for me: let’s make this situation one that works for both of us.’ You have to be calm and you must call upon whatever eloquence you have to make yourself be seen as clearly as possible. In a sense you have to give a neurotypical person prescription lenses for seeing your world as you see it. But I’ve learned it is possible, if not always then at least more often than it might seem. It’s doable, anyway, and it is worth doing.

*. Regarding ‘accommodations,’ I have often heard, even from the prof who was so flexible with me, questions as to whether I was registered with the disability department for my AD/HD to get extra time for things. (Realizing I’m autistic is a new thing, so I haven’t discussed that much with many profs.) But I don’t need extra time for things, I never have. And that’s all registering could offer me so far as I gathered. Not every neurodivergent person diverges the same way. Actually I have such intense exam anxiety that I write so quickly that I’m done first or second for every exam, so early that one professor tried to pull me back, thinking I was walking out and turning in an unfinished exam (once he looked at it, he gave that exam the A- it deserved). So I’ve never needed extra time. I need different steps. I need flexibility to find the steps for myself as I go without having to know them all ahead of time.

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