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Taking Care of Yourself at Work: Some Strategies for Disabled People (part 2)

This month I will continue to share some self-care strategies that I’ve found helpful at work. Read the first blog post in this series here.

Strategy #2: Practice Disability Neutrality

I used to feel self-conscious about my autism at work. Many of the cultural stories we tell about autism are unflattering — sometimes it’s difficult to avoid absorbing these messages. Autistic ways of moving through the world are rarely depicted as something to be accommodated and accepted: Media representations of autistic people often portray our mannerisms as awkward, embarrassing, disruptive or robotic. Moreover, autistic people diagnosed during childhood often receive explicit instruction on how to behave “normally.” Those of us who receive a late (adult) diagnosis also learn to suppress our natural movements and mannerisms, albeit via social conditioning rather than direct intervention. Growing up, I was often told to look people in the eye and to adopt a more expansive affect. (My parents didn’t know about my autism — they just thought that I was shy and that I needed to be encouraged to get over my “inhibitions.”)

At the end of a busy day in the restaurant, at the apex of my sensory overwhelm, I tend to lose my ability to affect neurotypical mannerisms. (I know I’ve reached this point when I feel like I’m drifting on a sea of sound, my exhaustion transformed into a strange euphoria.) These days, I feel comfortable lowering my mask at work — both voluntarily and involuntarily. In the past, however, I would feel a shooting sense of embarrassment when I lost my ability to inflect (much of my masking is vocal) or to come up with “typical” verbal responses.

One strategy that I’ve used to cope with internalized disability stigma is reminding myself that, on a purely biological or material plane, my autistic bodymind is neither inherently bad nor inherently good. I am a part of the natural world and nature does not make value judgments about the life burgeoning on our planet: Like all living things, I simply am. Following this, I try to observe my judgmental thoughts from a detached stance, noticing when they arise without trying to suppress them or accepting them. Adopting a neutral attitude towards my autistic bodymind — and practicing detached observation of my internalized autism stigma — helps me treat myself with care and respect regardless of how I’m feeling.

Some Note On Terminology

The term bodymind references an integrated understanding of mind and body (including the brain): our bodies influence our minds and vice versa.

Masking consists of two types of behavior — camouflaging and compensation. Devon Price, an autistic social psychologist, offers a great explanation of these last two terms:

Camouflaging involves efforts “to hide or obscure Autistic traits in order to ‘blend in’ with neurotypicals. The main goal of camouflage is to avoid detection as disabled.”

Compensation involves “using specific strategies to ‘overcome’ challenges and impairments related to disability. The main goal of compensation is to maintain the appearance of high, independent functioning.”

Some non-autistic people may initially associate masking with deceit — they may think that it’s about pretending to have feelings different from those one is actually experiencing, or even about pretending to have feelings and attachments. (See the robot stereotype.) The latter isn’t true and the former is no more true for autistic people than it is for neurotypicals. For example, we’ve all been in situations that require forced politeness.

A fellow autistic person recently shared how she understands the relationship between camouflaging and authenticity. She said that — for her — camouflaging doesn’t involve faking emotions, sentiments or attachments. Rather, it’s a means of translating her feelings into a language that non-autistic people can understand. Her explanation speaks to my experience of masking too.