Much has been written about ‘Masking’ the practice of hiding one’s autistic identity in order to conform to neurotypical models of social behaviour. The research into the impact of masking on a person concludes that it is harmful and damaging to mental and physical health.
But what of veiling?
What is veiling?
The masked person is autistic (or neurodivergent in some other way) and seeks to hide this entirely from the social world.
The veiled person is autistic (or neurodivergent in some other way) and seeks to minimise the impact of this on the social world around them.
It is, if you like, a halfway point between being out and proud of your neuro identity and closeted and ashamed of your neuro identity.
To the best of my knowledge, no research has been done into the impact of veiling. But it would be interesting to wonder about it here.
We could logically assume that it carries with it some of the psychological risk that masking does, in that the person performing the veiling would be actively hiding or suppressing some aspects of self.
We could expect it to be misunderstood in the same way that masking is misunderstood, with the reply of “but that’s just what we all do when we interact with one another socially”. It is true that no one is wholly and unrestrainedly themselves in social company because if we were this wouldn’t be very sociable! We all have to constrain ourselves to follow social rules that mean we get along. This is not the same as the specific masking of an aspect of your being, in this case your neurology.
It can help some people to imagine a physical parallel, so for example the amputee who wears a prosthetic under their trousers and hopes no one will notice that they are missing a limb is not the same as someone else who wears trousers to cover their legs. Whilst it could be argued “but we all have to wear trousers at work,” the wearing of trousers is significantly different and more pressured when the wearer of the trousers is hiding a specific aspect of themselves. So, it is the same with autistic masking (and veiling).
Complicated community relations
Thinking of it in other ways, it is morally complicated in regard to its interaction with the autistic community. From a community point of view there is enormous value in having people who are open about their autistic identity and proud of it. A person who is masking might be viewed as someone who is scared of the prejudice that they’re likely to encounter if they act in accordance with their true self. The community might look upon such a person with compassion, wishing to advocate for them to change the prejudice they fear and support them personally to feel comfortable with the identity that troubles them.
A person who is veiling could also be understood by the community and felt compassionately towards, but they might also be seen as duplicitous. They are claiming an “out”ness that they are not fully performing.
Loss to society
My final consideration would be to think of the impact of veiling on the social world, the world that the masked person fears. Sometimes this world is framed as a world of nasty judgmental people who are ready at a moment’s notice to persecute those who are different from them. Prejudice certainly exists towards neurodivergent people, at times to a horrific extent (I’m thinking of people denied freedom on the basis of neurodivergence and peoples whose murders have been ‘excused’ as understandable because they were neurodivergent). Whilst these extremes exist, and wholesale misunderstanding exists, I do not think of the social world as full of people out to get us. I imagine the social world to be open minded people, who when they meet someone who describes themselves publicly as autistic, as neurodivergent, is curious to learn more.
The veiling person hides from a social world willing to learn more all that they could teach them, they restrict the contribution that is theirs to make towards a more understanding society.
And so, the veiler feels a personal guilt for this perceived responsibility not fulfilled, that the masker who masks out of fear does not. In this regard there is an extra emotional pressure on the veiler.
What can workplaces do?
Many workplaces are recognising the value of a neurodivergent workforce. The term neurodiversity describes the spectrum of neurology in the same way that biodiversity describes the spectrum of living organisms, inherent in both terms is the idea that this diversity is a healthy and useful thing. And that’s what workplaces are finding, it is useful to have different types of brains to do different types of things. And a place is most productive, most happy and healthy, when everyone can thrive as the person that they truly are in the role that suits them best.
Public acknowledgement of a desire to be neuro-inclusive can support staff members wondering whether to disclose their neurodiversity to feel safe disclosing it.
Know your needed accommodations
Knowing ways to adapt working arrangements to suit neurodivergent people can help to create a workplace where neurodivergent people can thrive alongside neurotypical people, this could mean considering the sensory environment of the workplace or making adjustments so that information is exchanged in an email rather than in a meeting.
Offering more support that is asked for. This is the big one. Going above and beyond, aiming high, all those aspirational things. Perhaps you do not have any neurodivergent people working for you that you know of. It is still useful to highlight your willingness to be neuro-inclusive. It is still good to have a bank of adaptations that you could call on to adjust the workplace. Even if you genuinely have no neurodiverse staff, the recognition that different ways of thinking will be valued by you will help everyone feel empowered and accepted.
And if you do have a colleague who is out, and you have made the adaptations they’ve asked for, have a conversation with them. Ask them if there is anything else you can do, if there is anything else that would be useful for you to know. Offer the adjustments you have knowledge of already and ask them if they know of anymore. Invite them to lift that veil a little more. And be glad when they do. A world where we are not hidden from one another is a world in which we all get to meet and make genuine connections. Adaptations to accommodate people who are different from ourselves are not done for “those people.” They are done for all of us. We all benefit.