Updated: Sep 23
The Cognitive, Physical, and Emotional Impact of Autistic Masking
Yes, I was a “high functioning”* capable person for 40 years and no I’m not faking my inability to do things that used to be “easy” for me.
<hint, they were never easy… just easier>
When I first hit burnout and didn’t know what it was or that I’m Autistic, I was terrified that I was seemingly unable to do things for myself that I always had…
Sure, I’ve always found certain things to be exhausting, but I used to be able to find comfort in routines or systems with them – a type of comfort that had completely evaded me to a point where I barely remember how it used to feel.
I used to be able to sit down and hyper-focus on work; I was actually getting things done rather than trying to do the same thing over and over without the ability to focus, struggling to find words. Typing even became more difficult for me.
I used to be able to unload the dishwasher while I cooked a meal and then load it when I was done… like, all at once without getting confused or overwhelmed.
I used to feel like more than a shell of a person just trying to make it through each day. This was beyond depression and I was scared.
When I would try to talk to friends about difficulties, I very quickly learned that no one was going to believe that I was struggling to make macaroni and cheese when they knew and saw me as that “motivated, driven, quirky” friend… no matter how blunt I was about my mental and emotional state.
For me, the combination of fear and invalidation is a road that has always led to dissociation.
So, I was trying to deny all of it because I didn’t seem to have any reason for things to feel so… thick and impermeable.
But one thing I know from my professional background is what I was going through matched the effects of chronic stress… reduced cognitive functioning and impaired memory, headaches, sleeping even less and than usual, menstrual cycle irregularities…
I know many can relate with this on one level or another - it’s terrifying when your body is doing things you don’t understand.
My nervous system was upset all the time and I couldn’t figure it out. This is literally my job, something I was able to help others with all the time, but couldn’t help myself. And it was impacting… everything.
This is ultimately how I discovered ADHD and Autism - and Autistic burnout from a life of Autistic masking. This is when I finally had a name for what it was, and I collapsed even further. I had to. I had to let the burnout run its course now that I finally knew what it was. I needed to let myself let the dishes and laundry pile up, and only eat frozen meals, and not move my body, and not talk to anyone other than my phone screen.
I needed to sit with the validation I finally had for the physical, mental, and emotional decline I was going through because of burnout – because I had been living in a body that was in fight or flight for nearly 40 years straight while simultaneously living in an alternate reality to others. I had to sit and feel everything I had been so disconnected from for so long – things I had been told weren’t real, but… were. (I’m still doing that by the way; that doesn’t stop in life after burnout.)
Now that I know what I know - and continue to learn - about Autism, PDA, masking, and the nervous system, I better understand why my burnout got worse when it did. The effects of masking are very real. The effects of prolonged stress are very real. The effects of chronic sensory overload are very real. No, my brain wasn’t faking that – and there’s plenty of science to prove it.
The good news though is some of these effects are reversible/manageble. Science is also a large part of what helped me determine what I ultimately needed from a physiological perspective to help pull myself out.
Let me know if you want to hear more about that part.
*Please do not use functioning labels for Autistics. Functioning refers to what you see, not what we need or experience. We prefer using levels instead and generally only when referencing support needs.