If you grew up anything like me, you grew up in a household with family members constantly making fun of you for the smallest things. Whether it was how weird you looked while you focused, or how “odd” your fashion style was, or hell, I was once told I looked like a baby giraffe when I tried wearing high heels for the first time. Caribbean parents and relatives are no strangers when it comes to the sometimes-brutal teasing.
But what happens when you’re autistic and can’t control your facial expressions, how you dress, or how you move your body? What happens when you actually NEED to behave differently than others in order to manage all your emotions? What happens when your autism goes undiagnosed because of the pervasive ableism and misinformation that exists within our community? What then?
When being yourself isn’t an option, most of us choose to camouflage in order to survive living in an ableist society. That word we really want to repeat 4 times? We stop at the first time— because “voluntarily” stopping is worse than having someone tell us to shut up.
Our desire to stim? We use Soca, Bachata, Dancehall, and Salsa as a cover, allowing the rhythm to put out the fire we have in our brains. And thanks to our Caribbean cousins and siblings, we learn how to be style icons, even if that means suppressing how annoying that tag or those sequins might feel.
In the end, that’s what being Caribbean is all about— right? At home, we’re already a mixture of different cultures, and as soon as we step outside, we’re required to code-switch between our mother tongue and “proper” English. As soon as we step outside, we’re supposed to lower our voices, walk with our heads down, and act meekly in front of authority, just as our parents taught us. So how bad can suppressing one more part of ourselves be?
Well, as someone who spent their whole lives masking, and even has trouble unmasking to this day, I’m here to tell you it’s bad.
After a while, you start to forget who you really are. After putting on so many different personalities and changing so many behaviors, it’s hard to go back to who you used to be. Even though I don’t know you, I know that the authentic version of yourself is so much better than any made-up character you’ve created just to survive. While the world is not entitled to your authentic self, I do believe that you are. You deserve, owe it to yourself, to discover who you really are under all the years of self (and societal) suppression.
Growing up, many of our parents were relentless at making fun of us. Whether it was a kind jest, or a brutal attack, Caribbean kids are no strangers to having people teasing us because of the way we act. Although there’s a lot to be said about this, I do think that, deeeeeeeep down in their hearts, some of our parents were trying to protect us in their own way.
Our parents have seen how cruel the world can be to people who look, speak, and act differently from the majority, and they didn’t want us going through the same things they probably went through.
That being said, we know better now. We have access to information about autism, what it really looks like, and what we need in order to thrive. We are working on unlearning our ableism and becoming who we were meant to be.
What does that look like?
The process of unmasking is a tricky one. It’s a process many autistic people can’t afford to do, either because their income or safety depends on it. Choosing to unmask and start the healing process of coming to terms with who you really are is a long and difficult one. You’ll have friends and family members remark how different you are, even though they never knew the real you. You’ll get tons of weird stares from strangers when/if you decide to publically stim. It’ll be tough at first, but I promise, connecting with your authentic self is better than fitting into any box society or your family tried to place you in.
That being said, here are some tips to start unmasking (whenever you feel ready and safe).
1. Allow yourself to move in whatever way feels right for you.
I know we’ve gotten used to only dancing when we stim, but if you feel like shaking your head, tapping your toes, or even flapping your hands would help you regulate your emotions better, then do that! The whole point of stimming is to destress and to regulate emotions. It doesn’t have to look a certain way. You can dance, spin, or shake to your heart’s content— it’s YOUR body. You get to do whatever you want with it.
2. Tell people close to you that you plan on unmasking around them.
This one is totally up to you— you can tell them or let them figure it out on their own. Personally, I’ve told my friends about my self-diagnosis and what unmasking looks like for me so that they don’t take it personally. It’s not my responsibility to manage neurotypical people’s responses to me, and it isn’t yours either.
I just have close ties to my friends and know they might take it personally if all of a sudden I have a flat affect around them. Friendships and relationships between neurotypicals and autistic folks are hard as it is. I, personally, think that giving people close to me a heads up smooths the transition. That being said, it’s definitely a personal decision.
3. Remind yourself that you’re amazing.
More often than not, we have those voices in the back of our head telling us we look weird, or sound weird, or are weird for stimming, having echolalia, etc. Usually, those voices are our parents, classmates, teachers, or even random strangers who have said hurtful things.
Unmasking isn’t just about accepting or unlearning your behaviors, it’s also about accepting who you are— which is an amazing person. Autistic folks are able to recognize patterns, literally see sounds, empathize on an extremely deep level, and come up with the coolest projects when it comes to their special interest. Just because other people can’t see that, doesn’t mean you’re not the dopest person out there. Unmasking is a hard process, make sure to give yourself some grace and patience.
The world, our neighbors, and sometimes our families are already cruel enough. That doesn’t mean we have to be, too. So unlearn everything you were taught, and let yourself stim freely (in whatever shape that takes on for you), repeat as many words as you want, and express your emotions as much or as little as you need. Your family may not understand you, but I can assure you there are tons of other Autistic Caribbean teens and adults out there that do.
We get what it’s like growing up within our culture and being different, and we’re here to support you in every way we can.