With COVID-19 continuing to impact schooling across Canada, it’s important for teachers and students to stay safe and follow the health guidelines at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels. Special attention needs to be paid, however, to those students on the autism spectrum as they may have trouble when it comes to wearing masks. There are a variety of evidence-based strategies available to help educators.

Why Do People with Autism Struggle with Masks?
Individuals with autism have their own special needs and the desire to wear a mask varies between every person and their individual abilities. As with many other people, how much wearing a mask bothers us varies from person to person.
Differences in the sensory processing developments can make the mask’s fabric really uncomfortable to a person with autism. That scratchy feeling that might feel minor and a slight inconvenience to one person might be unbearable and incredibly distressing to someone with autism. As such, the steps to safely wearing masks can be difficult for some students.

Supports for Mask-Wearing
There are a variety of exercises educators can use to help promote mask-wearing to students with autism. For younger students, utilizing visual aids and social stories like those found on Breezy Special Ed or Autism Little Learners can work wonders for older and younger children respectively. It’s important to practice while the student is calm, to avoid stress and let them be better receptive to the teaching aids.

A very important and critical tool is to walk through the mask-wearing process with the student. First, begin by holding the mask. Follow by letting the student hold and touch the mask, then hand over hand rub the mask on the student’s cheeks and over their ears until it is not rejected. Follow by putting a string around one ear, then the other. This may take a few sessions. Then, start by wearing the mask for a few seconds and then extend the wear time following your student’s lead. Please make sure to use clear and simple language; for example, “First wear your mask then we can go to the store”, or “First wear your mask, then we can go get [any desirable or appropriate item].”

If visual supports are required, try using a stuffed animal or doll in conjunction with masks or use pictures of the former example or of a child wearing a mask so the student can match the pictures. Make the first time wearing the mask very rewarding, in order to encourage further mask use.

Shelley Ortved believes that healthy communication is the foundation of a child’s healthy development. Her Speech and Language therapy programs are offered to children of all ages, from toddlers to adolescents, and are dedicated to helping your child regain confidence in speaking, learning, and social interaction. For more information, browse through her website or contact her at 416-488-0988.