Hi, this is Vanessa Harris with Fun for the Disabled. Welcome to our COVID-19 series where we’ll be discussing how the pandemic has affected the lives of people with different DISABILITIES. Today, we’ll be talking about how mask usage affects people with sensory sensitives. The World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and other health agencies strongly encourage people to wear face coverings in public during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is because the coronavirus is a respiratory disease meaning that it can spread through tiny droplets that are produced whenever you sneeze, cough, talk, or even breathe.
The average distance that these droplets can travel is six feet which is why we’re asked to maintain a distance of at least six feet between other people. Covering your face in public shows consideration for those who could become seriously ill if they contract the virus. Masks have proven to be effective in reducing transmission. However, the requirement to wear masks imposed serious challenges for those with disabilities. Many individuals on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing sensory stimuli. Wearing a mask produces all sorts of sensory challenges. Change in breathing patterns, reduce the sense of smell, tight elastic around the face, and more.
These aspects of wearing a mask may be unnoticeable for a neurotypical person, but these aspects can make it impossible for someone with autism to wear a mask even for short periods of time. I’m here with Suzy Redfern of MILESTOne magazine. Milestone Magazine is a magazine for and about and by people with disabilities to help them. Hi, Suzy.
>> Well, we’re here today to talk about the use of these masks during the pandemic. So Suzy, your son has trouble wearing the mask; is that true?
>> He won’t wear one. He’s on the autism spectrum, and he has some, kind of, an impairment.
>> When did you first realize masks would impose an issue for him?
>> Very much right away. The first time I tried to put him in a mask, he was not tolerating it. The sensitivity to it. You know, he’s going to react viscerally. He’s going to panic. He’s going to get upset. I know him well enough that he gets dander up about something where he’s just too sensory. He’s going to, kind of, like, wig out. He’s going to get panics. It’s not something I really want to push with a 5’10”, 140-pound guy.
>> Because of the pandemic most states require citizens to wear masks when outside of their homes. Because Nick cannot wear his mask due to his sensory sensitives, he is no longer able to work his weekly shift at We Grow GREENS or to continue his hobby of swimming. These were two activities that gave his days structure and enriched his life, and now, he can’t partake in them anymore. In what ways did the pandemic disrupt his daily routines.
>> It suspended the swim lesson. There is been a team member shift at We Grow Greens which has been suspended. We Grow Greens because they’re in a business that is open to the public. They have the mask requirement for their customers and their employees, and it’s not something they really can get around at this time. Those two things which were the only things that we had going are now suspended. He is not 26. He aged out of school district at 22, and there is not been a lot since.
>> Evening trips to the grocery store are not possible. Although Nick has a valid reason for not wearing a mask, he and Suzy fear that people will react angrily to him not wearing a mask. It’s not that Nick is selfish or that he doesn’t believe in the pandemic, his sensory sensitives prevent him from wearing the mask, but not everybody understands that.
>> He’s excepted, I know. ADA says he can go into places. That doesn’t mean necessarily that we’ll do that. So I’m not doing those things that might have given him some structured activity at times. I think that we get, you know, some looks from people. It’s like, you’re selfishly not wearing the mask. The reaction when I see on social media anD so on people who don’t understand. It seems to be, well, your selfish and inconsiderate, and you’re not trying to protect other people. I think they should know that this is a real circumstance that these folks can actually go into a panic attack. This isn’t a person just being, kind of, selfish and oh, I don’t think this is a real thing, and I don’t want to wear a mask, and I don’t think it protects, and the virus is a hoax or whatever cockamamie things people have in their minds. That’s not the case. People don’t understand that people may be medically excempt because they have respiratory issues or because they have a panic issue, maybe they had a trauma in the past associated with a mask, or they have sensory issues like Nick. You know, it could be a number of things. It’s not just autism.
>> Because Suzy worries about Nick going around without a mask, she has to find other ways to carry out theIR daily routine.
>> I’ve talked to people like at Walmart or Jewel and, you know, in advance, if you say you or your son or daughter can’t wear a mask, they’ll take you on faith that you’re telling the truth because they have safety concerns of their own. They’ll find ways to accommodate. They’ll have groceries delivered or they’ll do that, you know, pick them up where you don’t have to go into the store.
>> For those with less extreme sensory sensitives than your son do you know how they can modify a mask to where it makes it more comfortable to wear.
>> There is a lot of masks I see advertised on TV that promote that they’re breathable and, you know, cloth masks might be more comfortable because it can be, you know, pretty loose, you know, things that might be less tight fighting or less claustrophobic for them.
>> For those who have less severe sensory sensitivities, modifications can be made to the mask to make them more tolerable. For some people, the elastic bands around the head or ears trigger sensory issues. In this photo, you can see that the elastic bands of the mask are attached to the boy’s baseball hat instead of wrapping around his ears or head. In this photo, the mask straps are attached to the girl’s headband. For others, it’s the material on the face that causes issues. For these individuals, buying or making masks using sensory-friendly cloth can help. SensAcalm, and autismproducts.com both sell different kinds of sensory-friendly masks.
The Seaver Autism Center has a few strategies to support mask-wearing in children with a sensory processing disorder. One, a parent, sibling, or stuffed animal can model the mask to make it more fun. Two, you can slowly increase the amount of time the mask is worn so that the child has time to get used to the sensation. Three, have the child decorate or make the mask themselves. That way they can make it fun and make choices about their own mask usage. Finally. Explore different mask options. There are so many fabrics, shapes, sizes, and modifications for masks nowadays. It is worth checking out what might work. Are there other ways to accommodate the needs of persons with autism during this time.
>> Autism Speaks has a number of resources like social stories for kids about COVID and masks, and, you know, some of the other issues. They’re also coming up with one with employment, and autism because the mask requirement could be a major issue moving forward for minimizing the already slim chances of employment that a lot of these folks have. Then it becomes a workplace accommodation, that could make it even more difficult for young adults, but that’s, kind of, another issue.
>> Okay. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to have this conversation with me. I’ve been having a conversation with Suzy Redfern of MILESTONES magazine, an e-magazine which helps people with all kinds of disabilities. Bye-bye.