Welcome to the current world of Covid -19. First, the temporary closings of school was shocking. How are our kids going to do with the changes and unpredictability for a few weeks? Then, the extending of the closure for the remainder of the year. WHAT THE HECK IS GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT WORLD!!? Add some shelter in place rules, and I don’t know about you, but my anxiety was kicked up to an all time high. I knew that this anxiety was only a fraction of what many people with autism experience when trying to navigate a world that isn’t always understanding of them, especially when the only thing consistent was a rapid paced change.
The experience has helped teach me that I need to hold onto consistency and routine a little less tightly. If I want to model dealing with unexpected change- I needed to set a good example. It’s a work in progress, but the experience has helped me feel more empathy for those like my two boys, whose very neurology is often wired against change.
So, when the world threw a new curve ball- You must wear a mask in public places, I was ready to do what I could to see if this is something my boys were capable of, without stressing over it. Spoiler alert- they ARE capable with the right supports. I’ll share some things that have helped us make mask wearing a success for my sons.
- Don’t Force It: Forcing anything new never works, and it’s disrespectful to the very real challenges that wearing a mask can present to people with autism. For weeks my boys have been gradually exposed to people wearing masks. They see their ABA tutors wearing masks, as well as random people out in public. I had my mask partially sticking out of my purse one day, and Parker wanted to try it on. Then Greyson saw Parker and he wanted to try. I sat there with WIDE EYES and tried to not make a big deal out of it even though I wanted to cheer. At the end of the night, I needed to take my mask back, and they were mad they had to give it up in fact!
- If They Are Initially Reluctant To Wear A mask: First try to understand function- or the reason WHY they do not want to wear a mask. “They hate it” isn’t a why. Typical sensory issues might be that it feels bad on their face because it’s scratchy. It could be that the elastic hurts their ears. It might feel like it’s harder to breath. These issues are sensory in nature. You might need to try simple work arounds to explore a little, after playing private detective while you try to figure out what the specific sensory issue is. You may try a bandana, or a makeshift mask out of a soft shirt. A child could refuse to wear a mask to avoid the unknown. It can be scary to have things on your face, especially if you don’t understand why. To help them understand, sometimes a social story can come in handy. Here’s one created by Sasha. Read it before each mask wearing try until it is no longer needed.
- Shape the Behavior you Want to See: Let’s say the ultimate goal is to get a child to wear a mask for a social distanced 45 minute Karate Lesson. That wouldn’t be your goal on Day 1. You would look to gradually expose the child to wearing the mask. Where you start absolutely depends on the baseline- or current mask wearing ability of the student. For one- the goal might just be putting one on and wearing it for 5 seconds. For some- 5 minutes might be the starting point for another. Reinforce all attempts, and reinforce frequently to begin. Gradually increase the time spent wearing the mask, and decrease the rate at which you reinforce.
- Make It Fun: As they are able to increase the time spent wearing a mask, don’t make the reluctant mask-wearer practice while just sitting there thinking about how much they hate how that mask feels. Let them practice while doing something awesome, like playing on the ipad or while watching their favorite movie. Buy character masks you know they would love. At our house Dad got Grey Lightning McQueen, and Parker got Minecraft. Now he is asking for a Thomas the Train mask. This still amazes me. Here are some fun character masks available on Etsy. You can wear a mask with them, to model how it’s done.
Right now there are very few places my boys need to go to where masks are required. Like many of you- we are mostly just at home. However, we don’t know what the future will look like- and the more gradually and positively we can work on this, the better for all of us.