Expert advice on supporting children with Autism in wearing a mask
Children with autism can have difficulties in dealing with change, and their sensory perceptions can be over or under stimulated, creating reactions and behaviour that might be difficult for parents, teachers and the child. As mask wearing becomes a key component to combating the spread of covid-19 many children with autism might struggle with the sensory impact of wearing a mask and the change to their established routine.
There are several things parents and teachers can do to help children with autism feel comfortable in wearing a mask. Dr Sarah Benson, Lecturer in Inclusion and Special Education Needs at the University of Birmingham Dubai, together with the University of Birmingham’s top Autism researcher, Dr. Prithvi Perepa, have shared their top five tips:
1. Use social stories and videos to help children understand why everyone is wearing masks and reduce anxiety around the virus. Uncertainty and change can produce anxiety in everyone, but providing easy, clear and explicit stories for children can help reduce some of the uncertainty. By explaining the why and how of wearing masks and staying safe in a pandemic, you are reducing the anxiety around wearing one. Parents and teachers should make these stories accessible to children and use the language found in them repeatedly to reinforce the message. This makes masks and handwashing a routine and predictable part of the day.
2. Feeling out of control during this pandemic is hard for us all! Many children with autism thrive on predictability and routine, so you need to begin incorporating the face mask into your routine. This can be done by placing a hook near the bathroom sink, where the masks can be stored when the child comes in and after they wash their hands. You can also use a visual schedule to remind the sequence of wearing the mask. Practice leaving the house and getting the mask from its special place, ride down the elevator and then right back up, wash your hands and replace the mask. It might seem silly to practice small behaviours - but this is how they become routine, and wearing a mask becomes normalised.
3. Along with the above advice, practice wearing the mask for short periods, in places where your children feel comfortable. That might be in your house, in a favourite shop or a play space. Set a timer and give children predictable breaks from wearing their mask. Build up the time in the mask and practice it regularly until they are comfortable. When they return to school, work closely with your teachers to find a safe way to continue to allow your child to take a break from wearing the mask.
4. Allow your child to choose from several different kinds of masks. How they perceive the fabric and breathability of each mask is going to be very different than your perceptions, buy several different ones and let your child try them all on. You can also let your child take ownership and decorate their own mask or buy the ones with their favourite characters. Once they have found the one they like the best, buy lots! You don’t want to be caught without the special mask because it was left at school or dropped somewhere on the way.
5. Along with differing sensory perceptions, children with autism can struggle to read and interpret facial expressions, making communication difficult even without face masks! Consider wearing a face shield so children can see your whole face, and if that isn’t possible or comfortable, make sure you are explicit and clear in your language and communication while wearing masks. Some people have also made masks with a clear box around the mouth, to enable speech reading, but is also useful for children with other communication difficulties, so maybe consider modifying your masks.
Find more support for parents and students as they adapt to this new environment on the University of Birmingham’s Autism Centre for Education and Research website.