With COVID-19 on the rise in the US and schools contemplating bringing face-to-face instruction back for fall, most educators are wondering how they will teach their students to wear a mask. Teachers of students with autism spectrum disorders will employ evidence-based strategies like using visuals and breaking down tasks into smaller parts to make their students successful.
Why people with autism struggle with mask-wearing.
People with autism have a variety of special needs and the ability to wear a mask will certainly depend on each individual and their own particular abilities. Much like adults, some of us are really bothered by the mask and some of us don’t mind it too much. Developmental differences in sensory processing might make fabric touching the skin, especially on the face, really uncomfortable to a person with autism. That scratchy, hot feeling that we might consider a “3” on the 1-10 scale of “yuck”, might be an 8 for a child with ASD. Ear straps can be equally troublesome. Other developmental challenges might be related to cognitive and language skills. The sequence of safely wearing a mask might be difficult for some students. Others might not be able to understand the need to not touch the mask and may end up contaminating their hands so much so that it’s not helpful. Mask wearing is an important skill because we want our students to be able to be out in the community. Here are a few ideas for teaching mask-wearing.
Student supports for teaching mask-wearing.
Start by giving simplified information about COVID-19.
Watch this Brain Pop movie about COVID-19.
Watch this song about why to wear a mask.
Read social stories about wearing a mask. This free set from Breezy Special Ed are great for older children. This one from Autism Little Learners works great for younger children.
Review body parts and make sure your student can identify the mouth, nose, and ears.
Always practice when the student is calm. Review the steps to wearing a mask. You can utilize this free resource that provides school COVID safety ideas with visuals and includes a the mask-wearing sequence.
Start by just holding the mask. Then hold it up near the face. Lastly, put on the mask. Start with just a few brief seconds and then start extending the time it is worn.
Use clear language that includes, “first” and “then”. First, wear your mask, then we can go to the store. First, wear your mask, then we can go get ice cream. Download a free mask first/then board here. If your student needs more complex visuals supports, I have created a large list of behavioral supports for children with special needs.
Play with a mask and a stuffed animal. Let a favorite animal or doll wear the mask for a few days. These masks are from Kroger in case you’re looking for a small child’s sized mask. Let Mr. Bear wear it all the wrong ways and let your child wear it correctly.
Print pictures of a stuffed animal wearing the mask correctly. Let the student put the mask on to match the pictures.
Print a picture of the child wearing the mask correctly. Provide a mirror and see if the child can put on the mask to match the finished picture.
Start with short periods of time. Use a timer app and slowly increase the time the student can wear the mask. This free visual timer works great.
Make the first trip out wearing a mask very rewarding. Take a drive to a favorite restaurant for curbside pickup or head into a gas station for a favorite snack.
During the first successful trip, grab your phone and video your student wearing a mask. Make your own video modeling! If your student is struggling to find success, use a peer to create the video modeling. Let the student watch this video often to support mask wearing.
Patience and small victories will help your students learn to tolerate wearing a mask this fall. I’d love to hear any other ideas! If you need other distance learning materials, I’ve grouped them here!
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Hannah Kelley says
Hi Jenna! I’m a school-based SLP who is working with a team to create an informal google website for parents and teachers at our school to use as resources during virtual learning. It will not be searchable by a google search. Can we post some of these resources (free printable/pdf ones) on the website? We will give credit to you and offer a link to your site as well. Thanks! -Hannah
Hi Hannah! You can email with a link so I can check out what the website security is like. jenna @ Thespeechroomnews.com
Katherine Krese says
Hi! I am a student studying to become an SLP and currently enrolled in a course titled “The Role of SLPs in the Classroom”. I found this post incredibly relevant to the work I will be doing in the future. I have had the lingering question regarding how children with sensory processing needs are wearing masks during this pandemic we are facing. I am also in a class learning more about ASD and find this post to be incredibly helpful. I think social stories, visual timers and the first/then boards are all awesome ways to help children understand the importance and reasoning behind wearing a mask. It’s so sad to me that children will remember wearing masks as being a normal thing in their childhood but at the same time, it’s crucial that we implement these techniques to best accommodate those with sensory processing needs, such as ASD.