Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, most schools and businesses in the United States are requiring masks.  It seems like almost every day, parents are venting on social media about their children with Autism not being allowed into schools, being kicked off airplanes or being denied entry into entertainment venues because they cannot wear a mask.  According to the National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC) the American Disability Association (ADA) does not have clear guidelines on masks. Whether or not businesses must make accommodations for people who cannot wear a mask is vague. To the best of my knowledge and research, there is not yet case law that has established whether not being able to wear a mask is a reasonable accommodation.  

Sensory Aversions are Not Preferences. 

Personally, I find masks very annoying. While many people insist they can breathe, I can’t. I wear them only when absolutely necessary. It is important to understand for some Autistic children and adults, wearing masks is not an annoyance. “Sensory issues” are not a choice or inconvenience. Sensory aversions are neurological responses to stimulus that neurotypical people cannot understand because we do not experience them. It can genuinely cause genuine pain, discomfort and anxiety. When teaching someone who is Autistic to wear a mask, we must keep this in mind and be as sympathetic and empathetic as possible. This is not meant to be a debate as to whether a person should be forced to wear a mask and this blog post does not imply I believe masks should be required. All politics and personal opinions aside, here is what I have found has worked the best for helping children learn to wear a mask. 

The first thing to consider when teaching a child to wear a mask if they are able to understand why they would need to wear a mask. If a child would understand this, you should teach it. If a child is not yet school age, this is probably unnecessary. A two year old is less likely to understand the concept of a virus or make the connection that a mask can keep them safe regardless of whether or not they are Autistic.  It is also a personal choice for a parent as to whether or not they want to teach a child to wear a mask. Personally, if I had children it would break my heart to teach them to be afraid of getting too close to people or they will get sick. However, in the world we live in there are consequences for not wearing a mask.

If you do decide to teach your child to wear a mask, keep it very simple. You can use a social story or even a simple video explaining why it’s important. Helping kids understand why it’s important to wear a mask will not make sensory aversions go away but it will at least help children understand why it is important. 

Hope Education Services partnered with Keith Haddrill of Keith and Company to bring you a short video you can use with your child to help understand why it’s important to wear a mask. 

Be Proactive 

When it comes to teaching a child to wear a mask, be proactive.  Do not expect a child to wear a mask for the first time when entering a store or traveling. If your child has been home for the past few months and has not been exposed to a mask. It is unlikely that if you travel somewhere that they are required to wear a mask for a long period of time that they will be successful in doing so.  You must teach it directly to a child the same way you would teach any other skill. 

Start by having a child wear a mask for a very brief period of time while they are doing a preferred activity at home such as watching a favorite video on youtube. Start by having them wear the mask for a very brief period of time – even five seconds. Use a timer. Let them know they can remove the mask when the timer goes off.  If they are able to wear the mask for the entire time, reward them by giving them a reinforcer such as a favorite snack. Repeat this procedure and gradually increase the period of time they are required to wear the mask. 

This is an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) procedure called shaping using whole interval recording. In simple terms, you have a child get used to a mask by requiring them to wear a mask for a specified period of time that will gradually increase and rewarding them for a correct response. 

For some children you will be able to increase the period of time that they are wearing a mask for all in one day but for some kids it could take weeks. 

Only increase the amount of time that they are required to wear a mask if they are successful four out of the five times they are asked to wear a mask. 

Little by little, your child will get used to wearing a mask. If you keep it fun and make sure the reinforcer is something that is very rewarding for your child, it may even become a fun activity and they may start to enjoy wearing a mask. 

Keep practicing at home even if your child is able to wear a mask in the community. When you are out with your child, you can continue to use the timer and reward them. Some children may not require this but if your child is struggling to generalize wearing the mask to a new situation, this can be useful to help them be successful. 

In a perfect world, children with sensory aversions would be exempt from wearing a mask. For now, this is the next best thing you can do.