Helping a Child With Autism Tolerate Wearing a Face Mask

As a result of the current highly contagious COVID-19 pandemic, the practice of wearing a face mask in public is becoming more common. Not only have health officials recommended face masks to reduce the spread of the virus, many public places now require it.

However, for children on the autism spectrum, this can be a problem. Some children with autism may experience sensory aversions to having their faces covered or dislike the feeling of elastic around their sensitive ears. Others may not adapt well to disruptions in their typical routines. Wearing a face mask may cause frustration, which may lead to meltdowns or aggressive behavior. But the fact is, wearing face masks is becoming a new norm and we must all learn to adapt.

My 5-year-old son has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Since the pandemic outbreak, we have not taken him anywhere that requires a face mask. But at some point that will change and I need him to be able to wear one.

I recently ordered him a mask made out of Star Wars fabric with the Millenium Falcon right in the center. He loves Star Wars, and the day it arrived, he was eager to try it on. He proudly stated, “It’s my Star Wars doctor mask!” Despite his excitement, seconds later, the mask lay crumpled on the floor. I knew I’d need help, so I turned to the experts, his behavioral therapy team.

Within days they created a detailed “Wearing a Mask” program for him. The goal is to have him tolerate wearing the mask covering his mouth and nose for an extended time without touching it and without engaging in maladaptive behaviors, which are behaviors used to avoid something such as taking it off or becoming aggressive.

“Wearing a Mask” Program Summary

  • Let child know that you’ll be wearing masks for the next couple of activities.
  • Present option to read/watch social story video
  • If needed, utilize premack principle to gain motivation for wearing mask (First _____, Then ____)
  • Put on masks (if needed, help child using least to most prompting), start timer.
  • Look in the mirror to show child how the masks look on both of you
  • Transition to an activity
  • Complete time criteria
  • When time is up, transition from activity and go inside to take off masks and wash hands.

The first time criteria is meeting the thirty-second mark six times without touching the mask. Then the time gradually increases to one minute, three minutes, six minutes, ten minutes, and finally, twenty minutes. During the trials, if he attempts to touch it or take it off or engages in maladaptive behavior, the therapist will redirect and show him how much time is left on the timer so he knows how much longer he must wear it. The program is comprehensive, systematic, and involves data collection to monitor his progress.

Results

So far, he has been progressing well with the program. I send his Star Wars mask in his Star Wars lunchbox each day, and the therapist says he gets excited when he sees it. I am confident that with the help of his excellent behavior team, he will soon be happily wearing his mask, and when the world opens back up, we will be ready!

Update-July 12th, 2020

This blog was originally posted on May 15, 2020, so it has been nearly two months since Barclay’s therapist has been using the “Wearing a Mask” protocol, and he has successfully completed it! He will now put his mask on anytime he is asked without resistance and will leave in on for as long as requested. I am so thrilled. He has worn it successfully for a hair cut, to multiple doctor visits, and shopping. For him, now it is just part of his routine when we are out of our home. I encourage anyone who reads this and is skeptical if it will work with their child to give it a try. You might be pleasantly surprised!

Learn from the experts. You will not live long enough to figure it all out by yourself. – Brian Tracy

*Special shout out to the amazing seamstresses Peggy and Jillian. At her Etsy shop Winda Bobbin, Peggy not only makes excellent face masks but also loves making personal keepsakes out of sentimental fabrics. Peggy, thank you so much for making Barclay a special Millenium Falcon face mask!

Jillian Smith at her Etsy shop Angel Bear Concepts makes adorable face masks as well as other items such a hot pads and bowl covers. We ordered a solar system mask from her and Barclay loves naming the planets before he puts it on. Jillian calls her creations, “handmade items made with a mother’s love.” Thank you, Jillian!

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Amy Nielsen lives in Orlando, Florida. She is the proud mother of four children ranging in age from 5-33! She and her husband, Brent enjoy sports and traveling. Amy is a former teacher with nearly 20 years of experience, a freelance writer, and a special needs advocate. Her mission is to help educate and empower families of children with disabilities to focus on their child's interests and strengths.

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