Helping Sensory Avoidant Children Wear Masks During COVID-19

“The mask is too tight”, “I can’t breathe”, “Its itchy”, “why can’t I just take it off” …May all be complaints that a parent has heard their child say. Your child’s discomfort may have grown to the point where they simply snatch off the mask and refuse to put it back on. Sensory processing issues are typically recognized in toddlers but can also be a common symptom of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Sensory processing issues are difficulties with processing information that come through the senses, whether its over-sensitivity, under sensitivity or both. A main component of sensory processing issues is sensory avoiding. Children who are sensory avoidant may react to various stimuli including loud sounds, uncomfortable clothing, textures, crowded spaces, and smells. In attempt to avoid the sensory input, the child may throw a tantrum, attempt to run-away, get upset, throw objects, and/or refuse to comply.

During a global pandemic, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) is vital to ensure our safety and health from COVID-19. So how can parents get their sensory avoidant child to wear a mask? These sensitivities can be frustrating as a parent, but there are things parents can do to help their child. Below are several suggestions that may be beneficial.

  • Accept how they react: Understand your child’s reaction is typical given the pandemic and even more so if your child previously exhibited processing sensory issues. Show empathy to your child’s feelings, allow them to sit on your lap, and validate their feelings with statements such as “I see that you are upset, it’s okay, mommy/daddy is here to help you”. Give them time to warm up to the idea of wearing the mask. By showing empathy and comforting your child, you can help them transition from being less cautious to more curious about masks.
  • Talk about it: Parents should use simple language to have conversations about the importance of wearing masks. The conversation can include typical things that children already do to prevent germs such as washing hands and covering nose and mouth when sneezing. Explain the purpose of wearing the mask is to prevent them from getting the virus-COVID-19. It may also be a good idea to see what your child already knows. Ask them questions about COVID-19 to gain a better idea of how to approach the conversation.
  • Make it Fun: When children are in distress about wearing the mask, parents can become playful and find a way to help their child laugh, smile, or giggle. Laughing is relaxing and an easy distraction for younger children. In addition, parents can create masks at home with their children. Make a mask from material of your child’s favorite cartoon character, sports team or color. Parents can also decorate a mask as a family project. Getting your child involved will help them feel as though they have a choice or a sense of control in wearing the mask and perhaps get them excited to wear it in public.
  • Find a comfortable mask: Ensure that your child has a mask that fits comfortably and cut out any tags that may give additional discomfort. Find a fabric that works will with your child’s sensory preferences. Masks with minimal seams may work best, but parents can also turn cloth masks inside out to avoid prickly seams. Also, masks with elastic bands tend to cause discomfort around the ears, so be open to alternative mask ideas such as bandannas or masks with two ties. Parents can also become creative by sewing buttons on a hat or headband to secure the mask without using an elastic band around the ears.
  • Practice wearing the mask: Before heading out in public practice wearing the mask inside the house, so your child can get use to the way the mask feels on their skin. Modeling is a great way Parents can demonstrate how to wear the mask on their child’s stuff animal, doll, or even themselves so their child can see how the mask will fit. Show your child pictures of other children their age in masks to normalize the idea and decrease stereotypes. Allow the child to play with the mask and ask questions to build comfort.

As you go through these tips remember that trial and error will help you find the specific strategies that work best for your child.

By: Dr. Teneisha McIntyre

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