I am firmly, one hundred percent pro-mask. My family wears our masks every single time we are in public with zero exceptions. We are amassing quite the collection. We are committed to being courteous, conscientious, science-following members of society during this pandemic.
Nobody loves the feeling of a mask on their face, but one member of our family has a little extra difficulty wearing a mask. My second son, Walker, is four. He’s funny and silly and he is also autistic. As you might imagine, I was pretty nervous when COVID hit and it became necessary for him to wear a mask in public. Like most kids on the spectrum, my little guy has some sensory sensitivities and communication delays that make wearing a mask a challenge for him.
As soon as I realized Walker would need to wear a mask, I started searching for tips to help a kid with sensory processing differences make the transition to wearing a face covering.
I’m happy to report, we have been able to make it work. He doesn’t love it. He pulls it off pretty much the second I tell him he can, but he abides it when he has to. Success.
There are a lot of reasons a kid might not want to wear a mask. A lot of those reasons might not be apparent just by looking at them. Kids of every kind are included on the autism spectrum. Children with every range of cognitive ability and social capability can have sensory processing differences. Childhood trauma can make it difficult for a child to tolerate anything that covers their mouth.
You can’t tell by casual observation if a child is experiencing the world through an atypical lens.
Now that school is about to start, a lot of kids are going to have to wear a mask, even if they haven’t been wearing one until now. If your child is able to wear a mask, but is resistant, try some of these tips and tricks to ease them in, and help make mask-wearing more tolerable.
Practice practice practice.
Introduce the mask at home where your child is comfortable and there is nothing at stake. Start out just trying it on. If your child strongly resists, allow them to take it off and try again later. It might take several tries to get the mask on their face at all, and that’s okay. Use positive reinforcement to encourage your kiddo to keep the mask on a little longer every time. Dole out all the high fives, hugs, and lots of praise!
Don’t force it.
Avoid attaching trauma to the mask. Nobody would react well to having their face covered by force. It’s terrifying. Make sure that encouraging them and practicing with the mask does not devolve into a battle of wills where you are shouting or forcing the mask onto their face. Even in a pandemic, your child needs to feel the safety of knowing they retain their right to say no when it comes to their own body.
Explain why the mask is important.
If your child is old enough and able to communicate using language, the AAP recommends using simple terms to explain about germs. Help your child understand that if everyone wears their mask, fewer people will get sick. Let older kids in on some pandemic basics. Explain how wearing their mask is part of being a good citizen. Some kids will enjoy their chance to be part of something bigger and make a positive difference.
Choose a mask that ties behind the head.
Sometimes, you just have to make the mask more comfortable. A common complaint for kids is that masks bother the back of their ears. To reduce this annoyance, try a mask that ties behind the head rather than looping over the ears. If you’re handy with a sewing machine, try this free pattern and make on of your own!
Use a hat or a band to keep the mask from sitting on your kid’s ears.
If you only have masks with ear loops, never fear! There are bands designed specifically to go behind your head and keep the loops from bothering your ears. Another way to protect your kid from the annoying, uncomfortable feeling of elastic behind their ears, is with one of these cool hats. I’ve been seeing them everywhere! You can buy a hat with buttons already in place, or grab a needle and thread and add some buttons to a hat your kid already loves.
Experiment with different fabrics, shapes and sizes.
A double layer cotton mask is probably the ideal fabric mask. That said, any mask is better than no mask when your child is learning. Experiment with fabrics and shapes. Even my neurotypical older son does better with a flat mask than a pleated one. I eased my autistic son in with a mask made of viscose from bamboo. The material might make a big difference!
Consider a face shield.
If you try and try and a mask just isn’t going to happen for your child with neurological or physical differences, see if they will tolerate a face shield. They come in lots of colors and sizes. Some are even attached to hats. They don’t touch your child’s face, and they can still help catch some of the droplets from coughing and sneezing.
Almost everyone should be wearing a mask to help slow the spread of COVID-19, but there are some kids that just can’t wear a mask. According to the AAP, kids with some types of cognitive impairment or respiratory disease might not be able to safely wear a mask at all. Some kids with seizure disorders need to leave their face visible to caregivers. Any child who can’t remove the mask on their own or indicate that they are having difficulty breathing deeply shouldn’t wear a mask.
Some kids with sensory processing differences just will not be able to work their way up to safe and successful mask usage. If they are going to continually touch it and pull on it, it’s probably better not to wear it at all. Maybe your child just truly cannot wear a mask. That’s okay. If everyone who can wear a mask does so responsibly, everyone will be better protected.
I have one last tip, and while it’s not about getting your kid to wear a mask, it is useful for each and every human being alive on planet earth:
Leave other people’s kids alone.
Chances are, the mask-free 8-year-old walking through the grocery store with his responsibly masked dad is not trying to make a political statement or disregarding the severity of the pandemic. He probably has a reason for not wearing a mask that isn’t apparent to you, and not your business. Wear your mask for his protection, give him 10 feet of space, and move on. Parents of kids with additional considerations are doing the best we can.
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