Life is never easy for kids with special needs. It has become harder with the COVID 19 pandemic. Being restricted at home with their daily routines changed, therapies canceled, and coping with over-anxious parents and siblings have added to their list of challenges.
Wearing masks is a big challenge for kids with special needs as most of them find it difficult to cover their faces for a long duration. Also, kids who are not fully verbal, not being able to see their teachers’ and therapists’ faces are robbing them of important clues to understanding social cues and emotions. Kids with glasses or hearing aids are also struggling to navigate the new normal where masks are not just a rule but pivotal for their well-being.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) in its webpage for Children and masks related to COVID-19 answers the following question:
Should children with developmental disabilities wear masks?
The use of masks for children of any age with developmental disorders, disabilities or other specific health conditions should not be mandatory and be assessed on a case by case basis by the child’s parent, guardian, educator and/or medical provider. In any case, children with severe cognitive or respiratory impairments with difficulties tolerating a mask should not be required to wear masks.
Initially, I decided to address this topic as a part of my earlier article on getting kids to wear masks. But as I started writing, I realized that only a short dedicated piece could do justice to this problem. We have to try different strategies and celebrate every small success in our journey. Here goes my list of six ideas to ease the masks into the lives of our special ones.
Mask for their favorite toy
Every child has a favorite doll or soft toy animal/ figurine. You could try to make a miniature mask or bandana (a piece of any excess material/ old cloth) for their favorite toy/ doll. Putting in on the toy and taking it off as pretend play might help them get used to the idea of putting one on themselves.
Leave a new/ clean mask in plain sight
We know that used masks either need to be disposed of or put in the laundry for cleaning. Take a clean one and leave it on the couch or table, where your kid can see it. The idea is to let him/ her pick up the mask and explore it. If that doesn’t raise his curiosity, leave it on his desk/ bed so that he cannot miss it. Once he notices, calls your attention to it that is your window of opportunity to say a few simple words or sentences on its purpose. Gradually, they will get used to the texture and the concept.
Animation/ videos/ social stories
Almost all of the leading cartoon characters have come up with their washing hand and putting on mask videos for kids. So if there is a character he/ she loves, check if they have come up with a video/ song online. If not, take a print of their picture and draw a mask on it. Stick it on the wall. Let them see, note, and comment on it.
I found this social story relevant to our topic of discussion. Wearing a Mask Social Story
Family mask picture
You’re right if you have guessed that I am referring to a family picture with everyone wearing a mask. I know it sounds crazy, but believe me, it will be an effective tool in introducing the idea of masks and generalization of it. So, if you have a picture frame lying around just click a picture where everyone in the family is wearing a mask and frame it. Put is on full display. This is taking modelling to the next level. Ask everyone in the household to comment on it once in a while when he/ she is around or in earshot. This might work!
Part of the visual routine
Almost all kids have a visual routine for easy step by step reference for dressing up for outdoors. Take a print or draw a mask and add it to the routine. This alone will not work but this will make it easier for them to adopt it as a new normal.
Signal for a mask-off break
Wearing a mask for a long duration is exhausting for everyone. Hence, if we could teach our little one to signal us for a mask-off time when they are feeling claustrophobic, we could avoid meltdowns when outside. When they tell us that they need to take it off, we could take them to a secluded area, away from the crowd, and let them take the mask off and breathe for five minutes or till they feel better. This is something I need to do on day-long shopping trips at malls, I just need to step out and away from the crowd and breathe normally for some time till I get my bearings back. Our kids will deal with the mask-on rule better if they know there is a supervised mini mask-off option available if they need one.
When we get to a stage where they are putting on their masks, we have to reward them for their behavior. Rewards coupled with First - Then strategy might make them willing to at try keeping their masks on. These ideas are only for kids with special needs that have no underlying medical condition making the use of masks impossible.
I would like to know if any of these ideas helped.