Dr. Devon Price and “Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity”
As you can imagine, I get pitched a lot of books, authors, and potential podcast guests, but I knew as soon as I dove into Unmasking Autism that I wanted to have Devon on the show. In this conversation, Devon and I talk about what masking is, what it looks like, and whether it is something that autistic people choose to do or not. We also talk about why masking is more complex for people of color, the relationship between masking and gender, and what integration looks like for a neurodivergent person.
This conversation is not only for parents and caregivers of differently wired kids, but also for any neurodivergent adult who may have been masking for a long time and is ready to start unmasking.
About Dr. Devon Price
Devon Price, PhD, is a social psychologist, professor, author, and proud Autistic person. He is the author of Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity. His research has appeared in journals such as the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and the Journal of Positive Psychology. Devon’s writing has appeared in outlets such as the Financial Times, HuffPost, Slate, Jacobin, Business Insider, LitHub, and on PBS and NPR. He lives in Chicago, where he serves as an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.
Things you’ll learn from this episode
- What “masking” is, what it looks like, and why most often it’s not a conscious choice
- Why the decision to mask or not mask is more complex for autistic people of color
- Devon’s thoughts on the recent explosion of neurodivergent kids coming out as trans and the relationship between masking and gender
- Devon’s take on ABA therapy and alternatives ways of supporting autistic kids
- Considerations regarding language in the neurodivergent and disability community
- What integration is and what it looks like for a neurodivergent person
- Strategies for ways parents can help their autistic children move through the world more authentically without masking
- How Devon see our society currently changing in neurodivergence awareness and inclusion
Resources mentioned for Unmasking Autism
- Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity by Devon Price, PhD
- Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon Price, PhD
- We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation by Eric Garcia
- How Unmasking Leads to Freedom for Autistic and Other Neurodivergent People (NPR Life Kit Interview)
This Season’s Sponsor: Outschool
Whether you’re homeschooling your child, looking to enrich their learning, or just want to give your kids a new way to dive into their interests, Outschool is for you. Outschool takes kids ages 3 through 18 beyond the classroom to explore the topics they love through small, live classes taught by expert teachers, all through an accessible online learning platform.
Back when we were living abroad and I was homeschooling Asher, we tapped into Outschool for classes in writing and Minecraft. Today, Outschool offers more than 140,000 classes in just about every topic under the sun — I just love how passionate they are about celebrating the needs, interests, and learning styles of differently wired kids around the globe.
CLICK HERE to learn more about how Outschool can support your child’s learning journey, and use the code TILT to get a $20 credit towards your first class.
Debbie Reber 00:00
Tilt Parenting is proud to partner without Outschool this podcast season. Outschool’s unique approach to education empowers differently wired kids ages three through 18 to dive into their interests in small live classes designed to foster a love of learning, create connections and cultivate independence. Learn more at outschool.com/tilt.
Devon Price 00:23
So masking I liken to being closeted as a queer person or as a trans person. No one decides one day, oh, I’m going to be in the closet. You’re born in the closet because the world assumes you’re straight and assumes you’re cisgender and demands that you be that in many cases, and I think that’s exactly what’s going on with autism masking as well. We’re born into a world where a very narrow range of behaviors, ways of emoting, ways of thinking are permissible, and everyone is expected and demanded to act like a neurotypical person if such a person even exists.
Debbie Reber 01:00
Welcome to Tilt Parenting, a podcast featuring interviews and conversations aimed at inspiring, informing and supporting parents raising differently wired kids. I’m your host, Debbie Reber and welcome to this summer of 2022 season of the podcast, I’m really excited to kick things off with a fascinating guest who has a powerful new book that I think is a must read for this community. I’m talking about Dr. Devon Price, a social psychologist, professor, author and proud autistic person and the author of the new book, Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity. As you can imagine, I get pitched a lot of books and authors and potential podcast guests. But I knew as soon as I dove into unmasking autism that I wanted to have Devon on the show. In this conversation, Devon and I talk about what masking is, what it looks like and whether or not it’s something autistic people choose to do or not. We also talk about why masking is more complex for autistic people of color, the relationship between masking and gender, and what integration looks like for a neurodivergent person. And a little bit more about Devon. His research has appeared in journals such as the Journal of experimental social psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and the Journal of positive psychology. Devon’s writing has appeared in outlets such as Huff Post, Slate, Business, Insider Lit Hub, and on PBS and NPR. He lives in Chicago, where he serves as an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Devon is also the author of the book Laziness Does Not Exist. So this conversation is one not only for parents and caregivers of differently wired kids, but also for all neurodivergent adults who may have been masking for a long time and are ready to start unmasking. I hope the strategies that Devon shares can help people reflect on how to embrace their authentic selves, and to do the same for others. And before I get to that, I just want to welcome you again to the summer season. I have a great lineup for you, including episodes on some topics we haven’t covered extensively before, like nonverbal learning disorder pans, somatic therapy, supporting our kids transition to adulthood and much more. Also playback Friday episodes will be starting this Friday too. And that’s where I re release a popular episode from way back when I started this show six years ago. Don’t forget to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts, so you don’t miss an episode. Thanks so much. And now here is my conversation with Devon.
Debbie Reber 03:48
Hey, Devon, welcome to the podcast.
Devon Price 03:51
Hi Debbie. Thanks for having me.
Debbie Reber 03:53
I’m really excited to talk about your book and your work. I was excited when someone from your publishing company reached out to me, I get pitched all the time. But this one, I was like, oh, I need to read this book. And I loved it. But I would love to start this conversation off by just learning a little bit more about you and the work that you do in the world and how that kind of led you to write the book that we’re going to be talking about today.
Devon Price 04:18
Sure, yeah. So first of all, thanks for taking the time to read the book and engage with it because I’m starting to know from being in the publishing world, all of the weird pitches that I’m starting to get in the mail. So anytime somebody takes the time to actually sit with one. I’m very appreciative of that. So I’m a social psychologist and a professor at Loyola University Chicago, and I am an autistic person. I didn’t find out I was autistic until my late 20s. After I’d finished my PhD in psychology, and following finishing my PhD, which I did at a pretty young age, I kind of blew through grad school very young because I wasn’t good at people but I was good at academics and what I could do with my mind. And I was kind of compensating for my struggles with relationships with people by really leaning into what I could do with my mind. But that path led me to really severe burnout and just feeling really lonely and empty after I finished my PhD. Because an achievement like that, as much as it’s supposed to make you feel all of these wonderful, proud things, it doesn’t really in a vacuum, change your life or change who you are, what else you’re struggling with. So this was going on in the background of my life, when a cousin of mine had just gotten diagnosed as autistic. And we were on a family vacation. And he took me aside and he said, Hey, he was college age. And he said, Hey, I’ve been kind of going through some stuff, having trouble adjusting to college, I just got this autism assessment. What do you know about that stuff? You’re a psychologist, and I said, Absolutely nothing. It was something that was barely covered in my training at all. Even though I did take some clinical and developmental coursework at the graduate level. All I knew about autism was that stereotype of a white boy who’s two or three years old, who doesn’t, quote unquote, socially engaged with other people, and it’s just lining up toy trains in a row. And I didn’t know anything about autistic adults or really the diversity of the neuro type, but my cousin had been looking into it. So he did, so we got to talk and, and he pointed out to me how, as he had been learning a little bit more about what autism really was, how many members of our family had spectrum traits, just really being strict about routine. Our grandpa, he was a famous info dumper, which is kind of a term for something a lot of autistic people do, where if we know a lot about something, we really want to connect with people by sharing what we know. And sometimes from the neurotypical point of view, we talk way too much and info dump and all of these other so that really challenged me to start looking into what autism really was, and start looking into pursuing adopting an artistic identity for myself, which then became a years long process in the making, and lots of digging through the scientific literature on the subject. Looking at the really pervasive gaps in that literature, because adults with autism are still overlooked. Anyone who isn’t a white cisgender boy from a middle class background is overlooked. And for the most part, non disabled parents have kind of led the conversation rather than autistic people leading the conversation. And that has many years later led to where I am now as a researcher and a writer and an autistic self advocate, really writing about the diversity of autism and how many of us are ignored and are masked in society because of those stereotypes.
Debbie Reber 07:47
I’m wondering as you share that story with the fact that you pursued social psychology as a field of study, do you feel that there was a part of you that wanted to just explore the human experience on a deeper level to make sense of your own experience? Was that part of it?
Devon Price 08:02
Absolutely. I knew from but by the time I was about 15, 16 years old that I wanted a PhD in social psychology. And the way that I came to that was, I was on the debate team in high school. And a lot of times I was digging through the sources to kind of help build up your debate briefs, and I was reading about things like the Stanford Prison Experiment, and the Milgram experiment, you know, these really landmark famous experiments from the 60s and 70s, where people were electroshock and each other or they were acting like prison guards and abusing each other. And I was so fascinated by how the human mind worked, and particularly how the constraints of a social situation that someone’s in or the social expectations you put around, someone shifts the average person’s behavior. Because as an autistic person, social norms just never made any sense to me, they all seem so fake and arbitrary. And there’s just all these unspoken rules that everybody knows they need to follow, but you’re never taught outright. And I was just constantly blundering my way through those things and figuring them out. So I really wanted to understand how people worked in a systematic way, because it did not make sense to me intuitively. And that was a big part of why I was drawn to social psychology in the first place. Absolutely.
Debbie Reber 09:14
Yeah, it makes sense. And just so you know, this podcast, Tilt Parenting, it is for parents raising neurodivergent kids, many of whom are autistic, but could be neurodivergent in other ways, but also we have a lot of differently wired adults listening to this show, and many, many adults who are discovering their own autism or ADHD as a result of discovering their kids, what’s going on with their kids. So you’re kind of going to have listeners who are listening for themselves and for how to better show up as a parent. But I want to talk about this concept of masking. So your book is called Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity. It’s also got an awesome cover. Just have to point that out.
Devon Price 09:57
I’m really happy with how the cover came out. Yeah.
Debbie Reber 10:00
But it’s so important when you’re an author. So anyway, well done with that. But I’d love to know how you define masking. It’s certainly something we’ve talked a lot about on this show. But I’d love to know what it means to you and why it was so important that you kind of made that you took on that idea for this book.
Devon Price 10:17
Yeah, so I guess I’ll start first with what the scientific literature says and then add some of my own nuances to it. In the scientific literature, masking autism or masking any disability is taking steps to camouflage the disability, and to compensate for it in some way, both with the goal of not being detected as abnormal, and just being able to function in a world that wasn’t built for you. Right. So camouflage can be things like faking eye contact, even if it’s painful for you. And compensation can be things like only ever taking on freelance work that allows you to work from home because you know, you need a ton of social recharge time. And a conventional nine to five office structure is just never going to be one you can succeed in. And those behaviors are all absolutely things that I take into account and talk about in the book when I talk about what masking is, and I interview people who have masked, but I also really wanted to zoom out in this book and talk about why masking happens and how it’s not really a conscious choice that we make to hide who we are. It’s the assumption of neuro typicality that is forced on us from the outside. So masking I liken to being closeted, as a queer person or as a trans person, no one decides one day, oh, I’m going to be in the closet. You’re born in the closet, because the world assumes you’re straight and assumes you’re cisgender and demands that you be that in many cases. And I think that’s exactly what’s going on with autism masking as well. We’re born into a world where a very narrow range of behaviors, ways of emoting ways of thinking are permissible, and everyone is expected and demanded to act like a neurotypical person, if such a person even exists, which that’s a whole other conversation is is neurotypical, really a kind of person, or is it a punishing social standard. So when I talk about masking, I’m talking about how a lot of us spend years and decades of our lives not knowing who we really are, because we were forced to present something that we’re not. And that tends to be particularly common for Autistics who don’t fit that white cisgender boy from a middle class background mold. So a lot of autistic people of color have no choice but to mask autistic women, autistic, trans people, autistic, gender non conforming people, anyone whose identity or the presentation of autism deviates a little bit from that really narrow stereotype, you’re very unlikely to get diagnosed. And so you’re forced to try and compensate and pretend to be something you’re not.
Debbie Reber 12:50
So interesting. So that was one of my questions, thinking about little kids. So it’s just a matter of the negative reinforcement that they experience throughout their lives when they’re from a very young age, they kind of fall into this behavior without making it’s not a conscious choice. Like, I’m going to mask it’s more of a protection mechanism, is that how you would define it?
Devon Price 13:15
It’s protection. And it’s also pattern recognition. Kids are really adept at noticing what’s expected of them, and modulating themselves to make sure that they get the affection and the support that they need. Because kids need so much of it in order to live, we know that kids can literally die if they don’t get enough touch and affection and emotional warmth. So just as an illustration of this, there’s a lot of psychological research in the developmental psych literature showing that from a really young age, as young as three years old, sometimes even younger, children learn what kind of toys they’re expected to play with based on their assigned gender. So you will see a difference in which toys a quote unquote girl plays with when she’s being watched by an adult, versus what toys she will play with when she believes she’s by herself. So we think kids miss things, or that kids are just totally wild and unpredictable and say wild and crazy things. But they are social sponges for picking up social rules and what they’re gonna get looked down on for and what they’re going to get punished for. And so even if you don’t know you’re autistic, even if nobody’s telling you don’t say this, don’t act like that and behave this way. Don’t behave that way. You pick up on I’m going to get made fun of. I’m going to get a weird look. If I say this just a personal example. I remember as a kid, adults would just repeat my words back to me in this dubious tone that kind of told me okay, I asked a question that I was not supposed to ask or I quoted a piece of media. This is a really common thing for autistic people. I used a quote from a piece of media to express how I was feeling because I couldn’t find the words myself, but it was an inappropriate piece of media for me to be quoting. I was pretending to be a you know, 45 year old man from some movie that I saw, and now an adult’s gonna repeat it back to me and be really weirded out, you know, you get all of these tiny little bits of feedback that tell you, You’re being weird, you’re screwing up. And as a kid, you are so dependent on the bigger humans around you. It’s life and death. So you change who you are, and how you present constantly to adapt to those things. So no, it’s not a conscious choice. And it’s not a binary, it’s this constant. We’re like a sail on the wind, we get pushed around by the social feedback that we get and the social structures we’re in.
Debbie Reber 15:34
I really like that metaphor, it makes a lot of sense. So you just mentioned the experience of black and brown autistic people. We’ve talked a lot about that on the show as well, Maria Davis-Pierre, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with her work in Autism in Black and her focus is helping these kids get culturally responsive care and earlier identification. But I’d love to know if you could share a little bit more about why and how masking is more complex for people of color.
Devon Price 16:03
Yeah, well, the first way that it gets way more complicated and intersectional is because most people of color, especially black people in America, or majority white places generally have to code switch, as well as if they’re artistic or ADHD or whatever else. And of course, Code switching is changing the way that you communicate the dialect you’re using, the way you emote, the way you carry yourself as you shift from one culture to another. So let’s say a majority black area to a majority white office. So that is working twice as hard as your let’s say white mask autistic because you’re having to do such a cultural juggling act of trying not to stand out. As Abner one person that I quote in my book is Timotheus Gordon, who is the founder of Autistics Against Curing Autism, Chicago, and he really talked to me about how for him if he’s walking down the street, flapping his hands or singing along to his music, or stimming in some other way, if he’s in the wrong neighborhood, he’s either going to get beat up by people in the community who see him as kind of violating the rules of what blackness is supposed to look like. Or if he’s in a majority white neighborhood, he’s going to get the cops called on him for being threatening and unpredictable. And we see exactly that and things like the police killing of Elijah McClain, who people might remember was a black young man who was a little bit quirky, just a little bit of a unique young man, we don’t know whether he was on the spectrum or not, but because his behavior was unusual, and because he was black, He died for it. So the stakes are really high. For Black Autistics, black people in the workplace, they already have to worry about being seen as angry or hostile or non compliant, just for having any boundary or self respect whatsoever, basic self advocacy, that would be totally fine coming from a lot of white people. And then when you compound that with how negatively people react to autism, it becomes just incredibly dangerous and incredibly perilous.
Debbie Reber 18:02
I also want to talk about gender. So, another thing we’ve talked a lot about a show is gender nonconformity, trans kids, especially in the past, I don’t know, three, five years, there seems to have been this almost explosion of kids and adolescents really exploring gender identity, certainly among all kids, but much more so in the neurodivergent community. So I’m curious to know what you found in your work about the relationship between masking and gender identity. You talked a little bit about it just there with the toys that you might decide to play with. And I’d love to know if you’re comfortable speaking to this, why do you think we’re seeing this kind of shift now among the youth today?
Devon Price 18:46
Yeah, so I get asked a lot why autism and transness seem to go together so often. And to me, I like to turn that question on that head and ask on its head rather, and ask why so many non autistic people are in the because I think that’s what it ultimately comes down to. We also know that in addition to a lot of autistic, a lot of autistic people being trans, a lot of autistic people are bisexual and gay. Interestingly, I haven’t heard people find that concerning as much as people find autistic people trapped, being trans concerning, which I think is very telling about where we’re at as a culture with accepting these identities. In terms of the mechanism, it does seem to be the case that autistic people, we are really likely to be whistleblowers and to speak out against injustice and appointed some data talking about that in the book, we tend to have a really hard time following rules that seem unjust to us or that don’t make sense to us. And I really personally believe that forcing people to be sis forcing a gender on someone at birth is this horrible act of forcing people to conform that is really damaging to everyone, regardless of whether you end up conforming to that cat worry that was forced on you. Or if you are someone who is able to break away and say, No, this category doesn’t make sense to me the expectations that come with it don’t make sense. And I’m going to define for myself who I am. So I think ultimately, that’s why we see such an overlap between the transmis and autism, we are more likely to violate rules that strike us as unjust. And that doesn’t make sense. And unfortunately, a lot of non autistic people seem to think they don’t have to think to not have the social skills necessary to refuse to conform or to refuse to comply. And that’s an idea that we see sometimes in the disability justice circle, this idea that noncompliance is a social skill, it might be difficult for others to deal with. But it’s very powerful to say, No, I’m not going to be this thing that you said that I was, and in my own personal life, coming out as autistic and coming out as trans are inextricably linked to each other, because they’re both about saying, Hey, what the world told me I was on not and I’m not going to pretend to be anymore.
Debbie Reber 21:00
Yeah, it’s so interesting. I think a lot about this idea of disruption and how that is such a buzzword and technology and innovation, just people who are really disrupting the system. And I think of these kids who are disruptors, they are non compliant, they are going to push and question everything. Yet it isn’t something that we often respect them enough to support them. And in doing so it’s super interesting.
Debbie Reber 21:28
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Debbie Reber 22:25
And now back to the show. And I actually want to use that as a pivot to talking about ABA. So you take on ABA in the book. And just for listeners, most of you probably know what that is, but it’s a form of therapy, Applied Behavioral Analysis, it’s really the only kind of therapy that is covered by insurance currently for autistic kids. And it is something that the Autistic community overwhelmingly has rejected as being traumatic and harmful in recent years. I would love to know in your opinion, is there ever a place for ABA? And is there a type of ABA, that’s okay.
Devon Price 23:05
It’s difficult. The first thing I would do is shout out Tiffany Hammond. She runs the Instagram account, fidgets and fries. She’s a black autistic woman with two autistic sons. And she is someone who really pushes back against kind of a really black and white thinking and morality related to this because she points out that her sons, again, they are black autistic kids, one of them is very visibly autistic and doesn’t speak verbally. And so she has really kind of said, hey, there are certain skills that I need my son’s to have, so they don’t get shot. And unfortunately, that means there is a greater burden to conform and to be compliant and to have some of those quote unquote skills or some of that training that ABA kind of imparts. I do also know individual autistic people who, because the only way to get it covered by insurance is to brand yourself as an ABA therapist, it is true that there’s a wide array of people doing a wide array of different things that are called ABA. And they’re not always the exact same thing as what I’ve our low vos, created in the mid 20th century, which for those who don’t know, I’ve only low boss created ABA therapy and he also created anti gay conversion therapy. And he famously said that not just a child looks like a person in terms of having a face and a mouth and a human body but isn’t a person inside. So this is a very dehumanizing therapy with a really dehumanizing history. And it still is often very dehumanizing in the present day, with kids getting electric shocks being forced to drink hot sauce, being forced to sit in a chair for hours until they provide eye contact. It is associated with trauma. I’m very much opposed to a ABA myself, and yet I do want to highlight some of those nuances to why not everyone who puts their kids through a B isn’t necessarily our enemy. And we need to look at who our shared enemy is. And that’s ableism. And that’s the structures that get especially black Autistics, but all Autistics oppressed. So for any parents who are listening and are grappling with this stuff, I would always say, rather than getting your kid into ABA, or going the conventional psychiatric route of treating autism, can you help your kid find their community? That’s what I think is really the solution. Find autistic adults, join in community with autistic adults, because as a parent that may help you understand your kid better and understand yourself, help your kid meet other autistic kids. Just as if you have a kid that you suspect might be gay or lesbian, you want to make sure you have queer people in that kid’s life. If your kid is autistic, you want to make sure you have a robust network of actually autistic people in your life. And a lot of times when you have that kind of support network in place, and all of the tips and tricks and emotional support that come from that a lot of the really harsh training and compliance forced by ABA doesn’t become as necessary anymore, the more you have to grapple with really ableist institutions, the more your kid’s going to be forced to conform. But the more you look at alternate ways of teaching your kid of living in the world, unschooling, anarchist approaches to parenting anything that’s kind of challenging the paradigm challenging the status quo, you’ll find that a lot of that stuff that you think, Oh, my kid has to, quote, unquote, be able to do this thing. It’s not always as true anymore, once you are outside of those institutions.
Debbie Reber 26:36
I love that answer. Thank you, I really appreciate the depth there and the nuance. It’s a complicated issue. And so you talked about ableism, a couple of times here, and you do talk about language and the book functioning labels. And it’s just fascinating to me, even in the six years since I’ve started Tilt, how language just continues to evolve. And I’d love to know why you feel it’s so important that we’re intentional about the language that we use when we’re talking about neurodivergence. And then maybe even how we as a community of listeners here can help push that paradigm forward.
Devon Price 27:11
Yeah, I do definitely talk about language in the book, I have a whole table about as a general rule, these words are kind of preferred by the community. And these words are not. But I actually think the focus on language is a little bit overhyped. The whole reason we have these conversations about language in the disability justice world is because in the 80s, a lot of non disabled parents of disabled kids started pushing for words like special needs differently abled, these euphemisms that really expressed their discomfort with the reality of disability. And so I grew up in the 90s. So I remember people joking and complaining about political correctness and language and how absurd people thought it was. And as complicated as it is, with some of those terms, people were kind of right, because the disabled community ourselves didn’t want to be called special needs, or any of these kind of condescending labels. It was something that people who were trying to speak for us, instead of listening to us, used to express their discomfort with the reality of disability. And I think we’re kind of still in that place today, to some extent, where anytime I get called in to do a workshop for an organization about how to better accommodate disabled people. The first question is always language. It’s always about language, what words are problematic, what words are not problematic? And I think that’s too surface-level of a question. You know, I think whenever we talk about language, we can’t just talk about use this word, don’t use this word we have to talk about why is someone using that word and what assumptions or theories sit underneath that word and drive the use of that word. So it’s not that special needs is an evil word. It’s that it wasn’t something chosen by Autistics, and that it was kind of used in a condescending way. Asperger’s is another one that’s super controversial, right? I know some people who, that’s what they were diagnosed with. And so they want to reclaim it and they identify with it. And I really don’t feel comfortable telling someone that they can’t do that. Even though broadly, I would say, hey, Asperger’s isn’t a super useful label. It separates one group of Autistics from another group, it has this connection to eugenics and, and Hans Aspergers relationship to Nazis is very complicated. And I’m still kind of seeing competing accounts there. But it’s definitely fraught and lots of negative associations. So even though I might generally, as a rule of thumb, say, for example, don’t don’t call someone Asperger’s unless, you know, they want to be called that. If someone does identify with that, and they have some route to it, I kind of still respect that. So that’s where I feel about all of these things. There are broad brush strokes, right? But again, even something like say autistic person, not person with autism. I do know people in our community who they’re part of our community. They’re doing the work. They just personally feel differently about it. And that’s totally fine. Like, let’s focus on our shared goals and beliefs more than just the language, though sometimes language is an inroad to talking about that stuff.
Debbie Reber 30:11
Yes, yeah, I think a lot about the language that’s pathologizing, as well, that’s something that is, as a parent of a neurodivergent kid, I’ve struggled with all the time, that is a disorder, all of those things. But I like your answer…it’s very much the answer of a social scientist. So thank you for that. Towards the end of the book, I actually think it’s your conclusion of the book. It’s about this idea of integration. That’s another concept which I’ve read a lot about in the trans community, integrating your full identity with regards to gender identity. And so could you talk more about what that looks like, what integration looks like for a neurodivergent person?
Devon Price 30:48
Yeah, so my path to including integration in this book is from some of the clinical psychology training that I had, and particularly learning about narrative therapy and how that’s related to recovering from trauma. So this is actually something that applies to a really broad swath of patients and people who are struggling with any kind of disjoint. And how they see themselves that if you’ve gone through a trauma, if you’ve had to pretend to be something you’re not, if you’ve been closeted, you often have this fragmented sense of self, there’s the person I can be when I’m alone. And then there’s the person I have to pretend to be when I’m out in public. And there’s the way I have to be when I’m around my abuser. And there’s the way I have to be at work with all of these different rules and false selves, and it can be incredibly painful and confusing. And a lot of masked, autistic people express the exact same kind of experience where they just know they have to fake it in a social environment, so they don’t get detected as weird or autistic, and pay the price of that. So one of the goals of learning to unmask, I suggest, is putting those pieces back together, finding the real you and the real unifying thread that connects all your life experiences. And we do know from research in narrative therapy, that that is a sign of post traumatic growth. And somebody having resilience and kind of come through a difficult experience and reached a level of forgiving themselves feeling compassionate feeling like, whatever it is, that led me to this place, I’m glad that I’m the person that I am now. And I’ve learned things from those experiences. And so it’s a really crucial piece, I think, to once you’ve gotten to know the person that you are underneath the mask, being able to tell yourself a coherent story about, here’s who I am, here’s what I believe in and what I stand for. That’s a really big important part that comes up in the book a lot clarifying what you really believe in what your real values are underneath the mask, and letting that guide your life and your choices rather than pleasing other people or avoiding rejection, because unfortunately, that’s what drives many of us for a really long time. It’s just not getting in trouble.
Debbie Reber 32:53
And in this idea of unmasking, you offer a lot of ideas for how autistic adults can unmask, you have a great chart, which I loved every day unmasking daily challenges for being radically visible, cultivating autistic relationships, building sensory friendly public spaces, so a really great resources. Are there any strategies, I think about, again, parents raising autistic kids, who are likely already masking? And how can we support our autistic kids in not kind of building up this closet full of masks and really moving through the world more authentically connected with who they are?
Devon Price 33:33
Yeah, I think it’s such a complex conversation that I think it’s never about how can I protect my kid from ever having to mask unfortunately, I think a lot of it has to be this really kind of self aware conversation that when you start noticing your kid facing pressure at school, or among other parents or their friends, sitting down with them and having conversations about I know, sometimes the way people treat you is unfair, or people expect you to feel different from how you feel talk different from how Utah or whatever the case may be, and helping a kid develop resilience in the face of that pressure to conform and to learn to recognize it and to basically build up tools for if I’m feeling the pain of rejection right now. What can I do to help find security and myself and find belonging with people who accept the person that I really am because unfortunately, we live in a really ableist world and we live in a really neuro conformist world. So you will see your kid learning to mask in certain environments. I don’t think that’s something that can be avoided. And when we have more control over, I’m choosing to mask in this environment in these ways, but only in the service of living out my values and building the kind of life I want to live. Then it becomes this intentional autonomous decision and another tool in your toolbox. instead of I have to be this person, because if I’m not this person, that isn’t the real me, I’m gonna get fired. I’m gonna get flunked out.
Debbie Reber 35:07
Yeah, I love that. And I’m glad you said that, because I was wondering, is there room for or, you know, I imagine that some people in certain environments choose to mask because it helps them feel more confident in that space. And when I said that intentional choice to make that you can have some agency and power impact be empowered by that decision, as opposed to feeling like you have no choice, I’d love to actually just wrap this up by kind of just zooming out and looking at the neurodiversity movement in general. But even in the six years since I’ve started Tilt, I’ve noticed so much more visibility, awareness. In general, it could just be who I’m hanging out with, because I talk to people who are in this space all the time. But I’m wondering where you see, we as a society are in terms of like the sea change of support and accommodations in the workplace and in schools and helping neurodivergent people really live their full lives in these environments.
Devon Price 36:02
Yeah, the conversation has definitely exploded online. And I think the pandemic also provoked a lot of people to have a lot of time away from social pressure and away from work in school environments, where they were forced to conform. And it got a lot of people thinking about who am I really, when I’m not being observed and not being forced to conform. So that’s been really powerful. And definitely the awareness and interest in this stuff has changed pretty dramatically. Just in the few years since I found out I was autistic. When I was on NPR talking about the book, I was interviewed by another autistic person, it was an autism for autism, about autism conversation, which a few years ago, you would have not seen that. So shout out to Eric Garcia, I’m the author of We’re Not Broken for interviewing me, because that was so incredible, that we’re not being treated like subjects under a Petri dish. We are leading the conversation and defining it. But we’re also in a really weird moment where there’s just so much misinformation on social media, there’s been a lot of writing about how tick tock has lots of ads and lots of partnerships with TikTok creators where people are marketing, ADHD medication, and they’re getting these pharmaceutical deals to basically convince a ton of social media users that they are ADHD and that they need medication, which, yeah, it’s it. And a friend of mine, Jess White, who writes under the moniker Queer Vengeance, they talk about this a lot, and how complicated it gets because I’m all for people using the medication that that helps them have a good life and using the substances they want to use. But the amount of just kind of corporate manipulation that’s going on there. And mass misinformation is pretty scary. So I’m always worried there’s going to be a backlash on the autism front as well. But I think there’s a certain degree to which you can’t put that genie back in the bottle. So many of us I’ve just realized, especially during the pandemic, that we are not going back to the way that we used to live, we’re not putting on a suit and tie and being under fluorescent lights for 40 hours every week, and pretend to be pretending to be something we’re not. And I think that is really revolutionary. And I think the more a wider and wider swath of people realize that they stand to benefit from a more neurodiverse world, whether they’re autistic or not, the better off world, we will all be because a lot of the accommodations that are good for autistic people are good for a lot of different populations of people too.
Debbie Reber 38:27
Yeah, 100%. And listeners, just so you know, I’ll include a link to the interview with Eric Garcia on NPR Parents Life Kit. It was a great conversation. I really enjoyed that. And also, of course, I’ll have a link to Devon’s book, Unmasking Autism. Before we say goodbye, I’d love to first of all know if there’s any where you’d like people to engage with you or your social or other places. And then also anything that you want to be sure my listeners hear that we didn’t get to today.
Devon Price 38:55
Yeah, so I have a lot of writing that’s free to read online at on Medium, devonprice.medium.com. And I’m on Twitter and Instagram at Dr. Devon Price as well. So you can kind of see updates on what I’m up to there. And I guess the final thing that I would say that I tend to emphasize anytime I’m talking to an outlet that’s for parents, and people and autistic kids is just kind of give yourself some grace and recognize that whether you’re autistic or not, or neurodivergent or not, as a parent, you absorb all kinds of stigmatizing ideas and biases from the world you’re living in. That’s not your fault. You know, it’s a cliche, but it’s true that your first knee jerk reaction to something reflects your societal programming. It doesn’t reflect the person you are and your morals. So there are going to be times when you’re frustrated with your kid. There are going to be times when you’re embarrassed by your kid and want them to behave differently and look differently. And that’s very natural. If you’ve been And living in an ableist world for decades, it doesn’t make you a bad person. And you don’t have to stick by those beliefs and biases, just because you’ve absorbed some of them. So just kind of take notice when you find yourself having that kind of knee jerk reaction to your kid, and ask yourself, Am I repeating something that I was told some damaging message about myself that I internalized? And am I now externalizing that onto someone else. And if you are, give yourself some grace, and give yourself some space to kind of really mourn that you had to go through that because I know and I’ve talked about this in the book, I’m not a parent at this point in time. But even though I’m an autistic person who absorbed a lot of stigma, when I was masking, I was also incredibly judgmental. I made fun of people who were cringy and awkward. I resented people who were more openly weird than I was because I was jealous of them for being more free. So we all do that kind of violence, sometimes giving yourself a little space in your heart to kind of sit with that stuff and notice it, and to forgive yourself when it happens. Because I think it’s inevitable, it happens. Sometimes we’re all going through this stuff together. And no parent needs to be perfect. It’s the good enough parent research says over and over again, the parent who makes mistakes, but owns up to them and learns. That’s the best parent you can be, not a perfect one.
Debbie Reber 41:18
I love that. What a great note to end this conversation on. Thank you so much. I really, I read all the books in this space. And I feel like your book, it’s a big idea book. I feel like you really are shifting the conversation to a new place. And I really encourage listeners to check out Devon’s book and share this episode. And thank you, I’ll be curious to see what you’re doing next. Do you have another book in the works?
Devon Price 41:44
I do? Yes. I’m working on a book on shame, which I definitely feel is relevant to Unmasking Autism. The book is all about how marginalized people, how we internalize shame and how blaming ourselves as individuals for systemic problems, like ableism, like transphobia, like racism, keeps us from joining forces together to tackle those things on a systemic level. Wow.
Debbie Reber 42:07
Okay. Well, you’ll have to come back and talk with us about that book. Good luck with that. And thank you again, just for what you do in the world. And congratulations on the book. And thanks for today. This was great.
Devon Price 42:17
Yeah, thank you so much for having me. This is a great conversation.
Debbie Reber 42:23
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