There are two questions I see most often in discussions about masking.
One is, “What’s the big deal about masking? Doesn’t everyone have to pretend sometimes?” (This is usually from allistics or people who have not yet realized their own neurodivergence.)
And the other (usually from Autistic people) is, “Why do people say masking is bad? I think it helps me.”
But instead of thinking of masking in terms of good or bad, or whether it’s exclusive to Autistic people or not, it might be more helpful to think of it as a matter of degree.
Masking costs us something, everything from a bit of mental energy that can be replenished afterwards to our entire identities. Some people learn to take the mask on and off, while others find it quite the involuntary response. Some have to do it at work or school but get to be themselves at home, others have to keep it on 24/7 because even their home environment is unaccepting or unsafe.
Masking is a survival skill, something that develops out of trauma, and also has the potential to shield us from further trauma. At the same time, it’s linked to PTSD, burnout, and suicidality in Autistic people.
It’s a necessity for many Autistic people, whether it’s to keep a job or not get kicked out of a housing/school situation or to keep from getting killed. It’s also something that not everyone can do, no matter how necessary.
To better understand the impact of masking, try asking these questions instead:
How many of the things in the picture above are you/they having to consciously think about when interacting with people?
How much effort does it take you/them to suppress urges/perform as expected?
How much time per day do you/they have to spend masking?
How much time per day do you/they get to spend unmasked or recovering from masking?
How much time do you/they get to spend in community with people who you/they don’t have to pretend with?
How much is riding on being able to mask?
How much control do you/they have over the mask?
How much does the stress of masking manifest in physical pain?
How much of yourself/themselves have you/they lost to the mask?
Like I said, masking costs us something, always. If someone feels that the benefits they receive from masking outweigh the costs, then they will probably call it “good.” If someone feels they have lost more than they have gained (and that’s an awful lot of us), they will probably call it “bad.”
The one thing we can probably all agree on is that we wish we lived in a world where we didn’t have to do it at all. If you have an Autistic loved one, the more time you can give them where they can be their authentic selves, the better off they will be.