MASKS!!! They come in all kinds of different shapes, sizes, and colors. Love them or hate them, as long as this pandemic continues (and perhaps for the rest of our lives in some way, shape, or form), we all need to wear them. Masks are very much here in our lives and the lives of our children on the Autism Spectrum, so let’s give a big WOOT WOOT for masks!
At The Autism Treatment Center of America®, we have been helping families of children and adults on the Autism Spectrum for the past 40 years. One of our core perspectives in The Son-Rise Program is that autism is primarily a social-relational challenge. Our children have difficulty connecting and relating to other people, and while there are most certainly other hurdles that present themselves, the main angle we want to come from is to create a world around our children where people (their main challenge) become useful, loving, inviting, and predictable. With mask-wearing, (along with anything else we want to help our kids with) we want to make it fun, inspiring, and inviting for our children to want to wear them. So the first thing to focus on is…drumroll please…our attitude!
- Give your child time to process. Our children have multiple experiences in their everyday lives of things being extremely out of control. Their sensory systems are overloaded and people can be challenging and unpredictable, even though they have the best of intentions. So our children’s need for personal autonomy is huge. If you are planning to go out with your child or they need to wear a mask that day, use plenty of explanations about what will be happening and when, way before it happens. You may need to do this several times, and perhaps begin explaining earlier in the day so that your lovely child has the time and space to take in that information and prepare themselves for that transition. You could even use a schedule and draw a picture of a mask on the schedule next to the time they need to wear their mask. Explain this in detail, because our children are taking it all in and you want them to feel as in control as possible – which will create the strongest bond possible. You’ll want that strong bond when encouraging the mask. Along with explaining when you will wear masks, you also want to explain how you love your child and want nothing but to keep them safe and healthy by asking them to wear one.
- Use your child’s motivations. When our activities are built around what our children love, they tend to be way more open and responsive to us. Shop for masks that have their favorite characters on them (e.g. Super Heroes, Paw Patrol, Camo print, JoJo Siwa, etc.) Or buy plain ones and decorate them with the things your child loves (for example, if your child loves slapstick, you could stick some googly eyes on them.) Have your child’s favorite stuffed animals, puppets, or figurines wear masks around the house and even bring these toys with you on your trips. You can play a game with your child where you pretend you need to care for their stuffed animal and while you are out and need to show the animal how to keep their mask on by keeping your own mask on. Additionally, you can incorporate mask-wearing into play with your child at home to help them stay comfortable (for instance, if they love tickles, you can pretend your own mask is a special tickling mask, and when you wear it, you give extra big tickles.) The more fun they can have around masks, the more open they will be to wearing their own.
- Pay attention to your child’s sensory needs. Your child may respond to particular masks that are more breathable, or ones that are a softer fabric for example. If your child loves different smells, perhaps put a drop of an essential oil they might like on their mask. If your son or daughter loves to wear a hat, you can attach buttons to each side of the hat and hook the elastic of the mask over the buttons. If you are out and about, be sure to take breaks away from others where you can take off the mask for a breather at times.
- Avoid physical manipulation, especially without a warning.
We want to be as user-friendly and as predictable as possible for our children, wherever we can. We suggest avoiding moving their bodies without permission. We have seen this to be wonderful for building trust and ultimately inspiring more cooperation from our children. Try asking your child if they’d like to put their own mask on for instance, instead of moving forward and putting it on them anyway when they are pulling away. If they remove their mask while it needs to stay on, give an explanation before you try again (e.g. “Hey honey, I love you and I’m going to help put your mask back on now”) – pause for a few seconds, and then if they don’t pull away, go ahead and put the mask back on them. In some circumstances, if you are getting into frequent control battles around the mask wearing with your child, you may even consider limiting as many trips as possible, for the time being.