Face Masks for Sensory Issues

This is a personal story about one family’s experience with face masks. It is always a good idea to follow public health recommendations for both wearing face masks and the style of in your area (different regions and countries may have different directives on face masks) and the advice of your own health care professionals.

Is a face mask for a child with autism your challenge?  Or maybe you are looking for a sensory-friendly face mask for sensory issues? This is a guest post from autism mom Trish Hamilton.

One of the greatest gifts our son has given us is the ability to improvise, to think outside the box.

Our son is on the Autism Spectrum and he also deals with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). The combination of the two is sometimes difficult to sort out and hard to understand as a seven-year-old.

Face masks and autism are a challenge

The autistic side is his emotional side. His inability to (some of the time) properly express his feelings leads to immense frustration. On a positive note, our boy is extremely smart.  Brilliant, in fact. We consider ourselves very lucky.

Research, “Tolerance of Face Coverings for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder” by Halbur et al., (2021) found that children with autism are more likely to have a decreased tolerance to mask-wearing. Oftentimes, this might be expressed through challenging behaviours (Halbur et al., 2021) 1.    

Sensory-friendly face masks are needed

The sensory side is (most of the time) what triggers those emotions. Something is too loud, or too bright or like his toothpaste, too ‘spicy’. He also does NOT like change, in any way. And as much as we prepare him for change, when it happens, the result is anyone’s guess.

Balancing both ASD and SPD can be terrifying, tiring, and mentally exhausting.

And very…satisfying.

Let me explain.

He is our child and we love him. So being able to think in a strategic way in order to help him, makes it all worth it. My husband and I call it ‘solving the puzzle’. There have been so many tears shed as parents of a child with sensitivities, but if you can just solve one puzzle at a time you will get through it. In fact, you’ll even get better at it.

My husband says, “If one piece doesn’t fit, try another piece.”

If you have children, you know what it feels like to see your child struggle with something. You also know how it feels when you’re able to make it better. That is the feeling we chase as ASD/SPD parents.

How do we go back to school with autism and face masks?

It’s September and many children are back in school under new rules and with new precautions. Protocols vary everywhere but one common theme is wearing masks in the hallways or in the classrooms.

Masks? Oh boy.

A mask to a child with SPD is the equivalent of having your face held underwater. It’s hard to breathe, then panic sets in. Let me be clear, the mask doesn’t make it hard to breathe, his sensitivity does. I watched him gasp and take it off almost instantly. It didn’t take us very long to realize that our boy was unable to wear a mask. We even ordered a cool Pokémon mask online. However, he won’t try it and we respect that.  He’s not being difficult, he simply can’t wear a mask.

How do we solve this puzzle in a world with these new rules and regulations? Find the piece that fits by first identifying the problem.

Our son needs to block his face from other children. He needs to be able to see, breathe, and be comfortable.

Our homegrown sensory-friendly mask solution

Ball cap, face shield and sticker letters.
Homemade face mask supplies. Submitted.

We found a store that was selling clear, plastic face shields. These are the ones you commonly see doctors wearing as an extra precaution. Unfortunately, they were for adults. We bought them anyway and we also bought a blue ball cap. The glue from a glue gun would not stick to the shield. So, we used heavy-duty glue and attached the shield to the cap. This ensures it will fit his head and not slip down.

Ball cap and folded face shield.
Homemade face mask supplies. Submitted.

What did our son think of it?

He’s ok with it. He understands why he needs to wear it and now he is comfortable doing so.

The puzzle piece fits and as a parent, that’s the greatest feeling in the world.

Thanks.  Follow Trish on Twitter.

Choosing a sensory-friendly face mask to buy

Are you looking to buy a sensory-friendly face mask for sensory issues? Here are some features to look for:

Infographic describing different ways to chose a sensory-friendly face mask.
  • follow public health guidelines for your area about features
  • pleats to give the mask shape
  • flat seams
  • soft material
  • stretchy material
  • adjustable straps

This is an example that dancers wear.

Interested in other sensory tools, toys and products? Read on.

A recent survey shows that COVID-19 has made sensory overload more of a problem.

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  1. Halbur, M., Kodak, T., McKee, M., Carroll, R., Preas, E., Reidy, J., & Cordeiro, M. C. (2021). Tolerance of Face Coverings for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 54(2), 600–617. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaba.833
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