Children with Autism and Face Masks
As of today, Maryland law requires, “adult customers accompanying children age two through nine use reasonable efforts to cause those children to wear Face Coverings while inside the enclosed area of any Retail Establishment or Foodservice Establishment.” This means that if your child is over the age of two, stores are hoping they'll wear a mask.
Parents of young children know how difficult it is to get them to wear things on their head and faces, and when the child has autism, it can be even more difficult. Rather than giving up on mask-wearing entirely, or trying to force your child into a mask, there are some simple steps you can take to work with your child to make mask-wearing more enjoyable.
Make It Fun!
Does your child love PAW Patrol? You can find masks with just about any print these days. If your child likes wearing clothing with characters on it, chances are your child will be more willing to wear a face mask with PAW Patrol, Peppa Pig, or other familiar characters.
Pair the Mask
Pairing involves associating positive feelings with an action or item by providing positive reinforcement when presenting it. Positive reinforcement may include tasty snacks, toys, music, a tablet, tickles, etc. In our example below, Jake is an eight-year-old boy who loves squeezes and tickles and his mom is introducing the face mask.
Mom lays the face mask on the table and tickles Jake, saying “Yay! We love our face mask!”
Jake looks at the mask. Mom immediately gives Jake tickles, saying “That’s right! That’s your face mask!”
Jake touches the mask. Mom immediately tickles Jake with a lot of excitement and says “That was awesome! You touched the face mask. You can use your tablet for 5 minutes!"
Mom gives Jake a break then repeats this process several times.
Mom wears her own face mask so that Jake can see her wear it and put it on and take it off. Mom says, “I love wearing my face mask.”
Jake is presented with the mask and picks it up. Mom gives him tickles and says “Wow! You have your mask. You’re so awesome.”
Jake now associates his mask with a fun and positive environment.
Putting the Mask On.
After pairing the mask, you can move on to putting the mask on. Make sure that your child has had positive experiences with the mask and is independently moving towards it. Forcing your child into a mask before they are ready will be counterproductive.
Ensure that you are always the one to remove your child’s mask instead of letting him or her remove it themselves. This helps set the precedent that they need to leave it on, and only a parent should remove it.
Mom picks up Jake’s mask and strokes it against his cheek while giving him squeezes and some positive words.
Mom says “Let's put our mask on” and hooks one ear on OR on string on (depending on mask style – note elastic may be easier to use) and quickly removes it. Mom gives Jake squeezes, tickles, positive language, and a much deserved break.
Mom repeats this several times.
Jake now tolerates the mask being partially on, without attempting to remove it.
Mom says “Put your mask on” and puts part of the mask on, then puts the mask fully on. She quickly provides HIGH praise, big tickles, picks Jake up, and spins him around. Mom removes the mask and gives Jake a break.
Mom repeats this, gradually increasing the amount of time Jake must wear his mask.
Jake now associates wearing his mask with a positive environment
Once your child is comfortable wearing the mask at home, you can transition to practicing outside or at the store. Of course, every child is different so these are just some general tips to get you started! You can always consult your ABA provider for help individualizing these steps.
About the Author:
Kitty is a Registered Behavior Technician at The Language and Behavior Center and has extensive experience providing services to children with autism. She is passionate about creating a comfortable and fun environment for the children she works with while also supporting the parents in best-practice strategies to help their children!