HELPING CHILDREN ON THE SPECTRUM LEARN TO WEAR PPE (FACE MASKS, GLOVES)


We are all hoping that our children will go to school in the fall, in person. That will involve wearing a mask and following other rules and policies that will be in place. Even now, as you take your child into a grocery store or a doctor's office, they need to wear a mask or a face covering and follow whatever rules are in place.


Wearing a mask, social distancing and frequent hand washing are all new skills that the children will need to learn. For children on the autism spectrum, it might take a long time to become comfortable with masks and gloves, so it is good to get a head start on the learning. Here are some tips on how to help your child get ready for school in the fall. Gloves are not likely to be required by schools, but because some parents prefer for their kids to wear gloves, I am including them as well.


Masks/Face Coverings


  • Put masks around the house where your child can see them. Some examples would include in the bathroom by the sink, kitchen table, mudroom, etc.

  • For children with a history of trauma that is somehow related to masks, the exposure might need much more gradual, perhaps starting with pictures of masks. It might be best to consult with a mental health professional.

  • If your child has a lovey or a favorite toy, make sure to put a mask on it. Have it wear a mask while your child is playing with it.

  • Parents need to model wearing a mask. Wear a mask yourself, without complaining about it. That would not be a good model. If your child is complaining about a mask, it is important to acknowledge that sometimes masks can be uncomfortable.

  • Some children feel that they cannot breathe in the mask. They experience anxiety and a sense of panic. If your child has trouble breathing in a mask, consider a face shield attached to a hat. They are commercially available.

  • Teach your child to pull the bottom edge of the mask down and exhale if needed to get more air.

  • I have also seen parents sew buttons onto a baseball hat and loop the mask around those buttons rather than around their child's ears to avoid potentially unpleasant pressure on the ears.

  • If your child struggles to understand speech or recognize your emotions while you are wearing a mask, consider getting masks with a clear panel that leaves the mouth visible. It can help those with difficulty hearing, auditory processing challenges, and those who have trouble communicating without seeing the moving lips.

  • Have your child practice wearing a mask while doing a favorite activity. It could be watching clips on YouTube or a favorite movie, or being engaged with a child's special interest. Start from a short time and increase gradually as your child's comfort increases.

  • One difficulty with wearing a mask and following the rules is that rules are different in different places. It can be very confusing for children on the spectrum, who are often rule followers.

  • Call the places you go in advance to find out about their rules and policies. Create a book with visuals for your child with rules for different places. Preview the rules before you go, more than once if needed. You know your child well and you will know how much previewing to do.

  • Model and emphasize rules. Take an emphasis off the mask or a face covering, and make it a more general rule about looking like other people in the space, or looking like you. For example, if you are leaving for a doctor's visit, you can say, "When you look like your nurse will look, we can leave the house." This is where it would be helpful to have a visual of what the nurse looks like. If you are taking your child our into the community, you can wear a mask and say, "When you look like me, we can go to the playground." As you are entering grocery stores or other community spaces, you can say something along the lines, "Look, you look just like the security guard!" It will reinforce for your child the sense of following the rules.

  • Encourage, don't threaten. You can say things like "I love it when you look like me!" or "I love it when you are following the rules!" Don't say, "If you don't wear a mask, we can't go to the playground." Rather, say "When you look like me, we can leave the house and go to the playground."

  • If your child does well with positive behavioral supports, accumulating stickers towards a positive consequence of your child's choice might help your child's learning.

  • Celebrate small successes. If your child feels successful, they will feel better about the process of learning these complex new skills.


Gloves

  • Disposable gloves are easy for obvious reasons, but they can be very sweaty and therefore uncomfortable. It also takes skill to take them off without contaminating yourself.

  • Winter gloves or lighter gloves that aren't disposable work better for some children. Those can be washed after each use.


I hope you find these tips helpful. Many of them come from a webinar I attended on helping children and adults on the spectrum wear PPE.