Sensory Friendly Masks

Aloha,

As a person with autism, my sensory issues are a facet of life most people aren’t aware of. The most sensitive sensory region is my face. The threat of corona virus and state regulations are mandating I face my sensory issues by wearing a mask, pun intended. Yet my greatest mask problem loomed outside the confines of sensory challenges. I have thick straight hair which tangles easily. Mask wearing didn’t help this challenge, instead ripping out strands of hair with each use.

My family helped me deal with this challenge through unique solutions. My aunt sewed me a really cute cupcake mask that I love wearing! I have a pillowcase from the same fabric, because it symbolizes a happy time when my aunt and I ate red velvet cupcakes to celebrate my birthday. I am reminded that happy time whenever I see my mask and this memory makes me want to wear my mask. My aunt also sewed flexible metal inside my mask so that I could adjust my mask in a way that was comfortable over my nose. When I complained to my mother about my mask pulling out hair, she helped me measure a comfortable tightness to tie the mask at. Now, I slide my mask over my head comfortably without losing any hair! Mitigating my mask challenges led me to offer help below, for families who have children that like me, had sensory challenges with wearing masks.

1. Make it fun:
People are more likely to do anything when it is more fun. By making the process of wearing the mask fun, individuals with autism may be more willing to mask, despite sensory challenges. Masking can be made fun by:

    • Have the person choose what mask they want
    • Provide a mask in the person’s favorite color
    • Allow people to decorate their mask with stickers and glitter
    • Have people make their own mask
    • Let people get masks with a character they like
    • Have multiple masks so people can choose what mask they want to wear for the day. One may even make a mask wearing routine where each day of the week corresponds to wearing a specific mask.
    • If one is wearing a mask featuring a favorite character, they may want to dress up like the character on their mask

2. Material:
People with autism can be sensitive to certain types of material. Below are suggestions on finding the right material for the person:

  • Cloth masks are usually more comfortable than paper masks
  • Be aware of materials the person doesn’t like when looking for masks
  • Let people try on different types of masks until they find a material and style that works best for them
  • When washing a cloth mask, try not to use scented laundry soap as it might bother the mask wearer
  • When washing a cloth mask, add fabric softener to make the mask more comfortable

3. Tightness:
Your child might not like wearing a mask simply because it is too tight. If your child is able to adjust the mask tightness, they will have a feeling of control associated with wearing the mask.

  • Masks that have elastic straps around ears may be bothersome
  • Go for masks with straps one can tie and let the mask wearer tie the straps at a tightness which they prefer
  • If a child can’t tie strings, replace strings with Velcro or buttons
  • Masks with an adjustable nose bridge allow the mask wearer to have more control over how tight the mask is against their face

4. Modifications:
Wearing masks comes with challenges unique to the individual. One can modify such challenges described below

  • Remove facial piercings before putting mask on because masks can shove facial piercings into the skin which is painful.
  • Have your hair cut to prevent the mask from messing it up or pulling it out. This is the next step on my mask wearing adventure!
  • Chew gum while wearing mask: This prevents one from smelling their breath, captured by the mask and can be of great value to those with smell sensitivities. Chewing gun can also provide a distraction to help the mask wearer with their mask
  • Eat candy while wearing mask: This prevents one from smelling their breath and provides a positive reinforcement for wearing a mask
  • People who have seizure disorders may need to wear clear masks so people around them can see warning signs of upcoming seizures
  • Placing tissues under the top of a mask prevents one’s glasses from fogging up

5. Practice:
When the right mask has been selected and modified, have the mask wearer practice wearing their mask in controlled environments or while watching TV. Have a person wear the mask for a short amount of time and gradually build up to longer durations of time.

6. Explanation:
Explain to your child why they need to wear a mask and ensure them that you and others will wear a mask too.

7. If this doesn’t work:
If your child still isn’t able to wear a mask, try to get a doctor’s referral for them to not need to wear a mask in public. If this route is taken, inform your child that they will have to do more proactive sanitation procedures for not wearing their mask.

Below is a link to a good picture site in multiple languages on the importance of wearing a mask:

  • https://paautism.org/resource/wearing-mask-social-story/

Below are articles which inspired this article providing further reading:

  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2020/05/11/some-autistic-people-cant-tolerate-face-masks-heres-how-were-managing-with-our-son/
  2. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/helping-people-with-autism-spectrum-disorder-manage-masks-and-covid-19-tests-2020061020089

Below are links to online mask stores offering a variety of styles:

  1. https://maskclub.com/collections/kids/best-sellers-face-masks
  2. https://www.armtheanimals.com/collections/ata-masks
  3. https://www.etsy.com/search?q=cotton%20masks

Written by Jessica Militich