This school year has created many challenges for parents. Should I send my kids to school? Or let them learn at home virtually? In many cases, families don’t even have choices. For families that include autistic children, the challenges are multiplied. Recent news stories have highlighted one of those challenges: wearing face masks.
As noted by Megan Reagan, the mother of an autistic child with ADHD in elementary school in Wisconsin, it’s difficult for some autistic people to wear masks because of sensitivity issues, “He has a problem with all of them. It’s not the style of facemasks that’s the issue. It’s the fact that it’s still covering his nose and his mouth and he feels like he can’t breathe normally.”
Her son’s doctor would not provide an exemption until he tried a number of face masks. Reagan contends that an order from Wisconsin governor, Tony Evers, exempts her son and other autistic students from wearing a mask: “Individuals are exempt from the face-covering order, including individuals under the age of five and individuals who have trouble breathing, a medical condition, intellectual or developmental disability, mental health condition, or other sensory sensitivity that prevents the individual from wearing a face covering.”
In Florida, a 12-year-old child was not allowed to attend school because he wasn’t wearing a face mask, despite the fact that he is autistic and non-verbal and needs an in-person education, according to his mother. As reported on the News Channel 8 website, Ruby Rodriguez said she was told her son could come back to school only if she got a “district-issued mask exemption form signed by a doctor.” Rodriguez tried to get a signature from her son’s pediatrician, another pediatrician, and three walk-in clinics, as well as a facility for children with special needs and was unable to obtain an exemption.
The News Channel 8 website noted that she is not the only parent having issues. The founder of a nonprofit that helps families with special needs, Nikki French, was quoted in the article as saying that she was also initially told she could not get a face-mask exemption by her child’s pediatrician. “…They told me sort of the reason why and I reminded them that my child has a medical diagnosis and that I am not doing this as an out, I am doing this to make sure that she still is given every opportunity to learn that she deserves. I feel like it shouldn’t be that hard for our families to be able to get this exemption.”
She went on to say that she feels there is a disconnect between the right of children with special needs to have an education and the requirement to wear a mask. “We already struggled prior to COVID to make sure that our kids with special needs are given the accommodations and the things that they need, and now we have got this as a hurdle and it is nearly impossible to get over this hurdle.”
Banned from Airplanes and Stores
It isn’t just schools that are banning children who don’t wear face masks. In a recent incident reported on several media sites, a family whose child is autistic was removed from a Spirit Airlines flight and the parents banned from flying on the airline after their 3-year-old autistic child would not keep his mask on. His mother, Zana Shelton, said in a Newsweek article that a flight attendant on the flight from Las Vegas to Chicago told her that “if he doesn’t wear a mask he can’t get on the plane,” despite the fact that they didn’t have a problem on the flight to Las Vegas. As soon as they sat down, her son took his mask off, she noted.
In Allentown, Pa., a mother says her autistic son was barred from entering a Disney Store in the local mall because he would not wear a face mask. A DisabilityScoop article reported that the mother decided not to make her 7-year-old wear a face covering because he is highly sensitive to touch, especially on his face. The family’s attorney was quoted in the article as saying that the goal of the lawsuit is to educate companies about the need to make accommodations for people with disabilities, including COVID-19 safety policies.
The article also noted that a statewide order issued in July requiring masks in public places included an exception for ”people with medical conditions that prevent them from wearing a mask including mental health conditions or disabilities. There is no requirement to provide proof of a medical condition.”
Support for Getting Used to Masks
There is some helpful news amid the confusion and difficulty that the pandemic has created. Sesame Street recently released a video featuring Julia, their 4-year-old autistic character, and her dad talking about face masks. In the video, she tells her dad that the straps bother her ears, and the mask tickles her nose. As many parents already know, these and similar complaints often result in children refusing to wear the masks. Julia’s dad responds with empathy and tells her practice can make wearing a mask easier. With the help of Julia’s stuffed rabbit, Fluffster, they practice wearing masks and discuss what can be done to make it easier.
In a recent Washington Post article providing guidance for wearing face masks comfortably, Neysa Ernst, nurse manager of the Biocontainment Unit at Johns Hopkins Medicine, recommended ensuring that masks fit properly and are comfortable. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine and an infectious-disease expert at the University of California at San Francisco, suggested using adjustable face coverings so children have a sense of control and letting them choose fun designs.
Experts also noted that it’s going to take patience and planning from and by parents. Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, a clinical psychologist, parenting coach, and author, said positive reinforcement and validation can make a difference in children’s willingness to wear masks. “It’s not helpful to say things like, ‘It’s not that bad,’ or ‘Come on, what’s the big deal?’” Hershberg said. “It’s far better to acknowledge that this is different and does feel weird, but that it’s also important and something we need to do for the health of our community.”
As with the many other challenges autism can present for children and parents, the issue of face masks appears to be one that is going to take planning, patience, perseverance, and a willingness to engage with healthcare providers, school administrators, and others.