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Geisinger becomes the first member of Risant Health

If you’re a parent to a kid with special needs, such as autism, you know that sensory issues may make it difficult for them to tolerate wearing a mask. Here are some practical tips to help your child wear a mask successfully.

Wearing a mask when leaving the house helps prevent the spread of COVID-19. But children with special needs may have a difficult time wearing a mask and may not understand why they need to do it.

If your child with special needs is reluctant to wear theirs, here are some ways you can help them understand why and how they should wear a mask.

Make a simple “If This/Then This” visual support

This is a great way to help your child stay motivated to wear their mask. “It’s a commonly used visual that your child may already be familiar with,” says Cora Taylor, PhD, pediatric psychologist at Geisinger's Autism & Developmental Medicine Institute (ADMI).

An “If This/Then This” chart is created by drawing a line down a piece of paper and writing “If” on one side and “Then” on the other.

Place their mask on the “If” side and place something they like (used as a reward) on the “Then” side. This will show them that if they wear their mask, then they’ll get the reward. The reward can be anything they like — toys or a sticker, for example.

Teach and practice wearing a mask

Taking the time at home to practice wearing a mask can help your child when the time comes to wear theirs around other people.

“Choose a time of day when your child will be less distracted, so they can focus fully on practicing,” says Barbara Haas-Givler, board-certified behavior analyst and director of outreach and education at ADMI. “If you have other children, they can be used as models and included in the practice session, too.”

“During this time, when wearing masks continues to be important, your child might benefit from the ‘Wearing a Mask’ photo social story,” adds Ms. Haas-Givler. This resource provides those with special needs, such as autism, with a visual support that explains how wearing a mask helps to avoid spreading germs.

Also, let your child try on different kinds of masks to find one that works best for them. “Some children with sensory issues may prefer certain fabrics or masks that fasten in different ways, such as a mask that loops behind their ears or ties behind their head,” says Dr. Taylor.

You can also adapt a mask that loops behind the ears by using string or yarn so it fastens behind their head instead.

When your child wears their mask successfully for a few minutes, let them know they did a good job. This praise, along with other reinforcers, may help them continue to wear their mask. “And keep practicing mask wearing at home a few times a day,” says Ms. Haas-Givler. “The more you practice, the easier it will be for your child.”

Helping your child with special needs wear their mask in the community

Before you take your child out wearing their mask, take photos of places, like the grocery store or doctor’s office, to use in your “If This/Then This” visual.

“You can place a photo of where you’re going on the ‘If’ side, along with their mask,” says Dr. Taylor. “Tell them, ‘If you wear your mask to the grocery store, then you can go to the park,’ or any other reward that they selected.”

Start small by practicing wearing masks somewhere your child likes going, like the toy store or park. Then take them with you to other places, like the grocery store.

If they remove their mask when you’re out, remind them that you’ll have to leave and that they won’t earn their reward. “But stay calm and tell them they did a good job wearing their mask while you were there,” says Dr. Taylor.

Remember, if your child is younger than 2, they do not need to wear a mask. But if they’re older and are having a hard to adjusting to masks, these tips can help. “It might take your child some time to adjust to wearing their mask,” says Ms. Haas-Givler. “But focus on the small changes. Your child will progress with consistency and practice.”

Next steps:

Learn more about ADMI
5 tips for raising a child with special needs

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