Pediatric Therapeutic Services

Help Students with Sensory Processing Challenges (Mask Up)

Going back to school looks very different in 2020 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Kids are meeting new teachers, making new friends, and mastering new schedules, as always. But, the new school year brings new challenges, especially for students already challenged by sensory processing disorder.

For children with autism and other sensory processing challenges, wearing a mask—as the CDC recommends students and teachers do in most school situations—can be a difficult health and safety guideline to follow.
Three elementary school boys outside their school during the coronavirus pandemic, wearing masks over their mouths and noses.
These individuals’ sensory systems struggle to process, organize, and respond to the input they receive. New stimuli and changes in routine, which many school reopenings come with, can make that struggle even more difficult.

Whether the schools in your area have been open a few months, are only now gearing up to resume in-person instruction, or are reopening after a virus outbreak forced a temporary closure, at Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS) we want to offer you some pointers for helping children with sensory processing issues tolerate wearing a mask.

How Wearing Masks Affects People with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

​If you have autism spectrum disorder or another sensory processing disorder (SPD), how your senses react to the new stimulus of wearing a mask will vary depending upon whether your threshold for sensory input is high or low. You may be hyper-sensitive (over-responsive) or hypo-sensitive (under-responsive). 

A facial mask may affect one or more of these sensory systems:

  • Your Tactile System
    You may react to the feel of the mask fabric, the sensation of tight elastic bands around your ears, or the heat and moisture from your breath inside the mask.
  • Your Olfactory System
    You may notice the smell of the mask’s fabric, or of your own breath.
  • Your Visual System
    You may find not being able to see people’s mouths and full facial expressions challenging.
  • Your Auditory System
    You may miss auditory cues in social interactions because a mask is muffling a speaker’s voice.
  • Your Proprioceptive (Body Awareness) System
    You may find breathing in and out through your nose feels restrictive and disorienting, disrupting your body’s sense of where it is in space.

Wearing face masks can also affect how individuals with autism and SPD:

  • Breathe.
  • Self-regulate their feelings and behaviors.
  • Pay attention.
  • Remain on task.
  • Experience emotional health.

Facial masks may appear to be small, but as you can see, they’re capable of making a huge impact on people’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Masks are necessary public health precautions while the coronavirus pandemic lasts. So, it’s up to school-based therapists like you to find ways to help students with sensory processing issues adapt.

Try These Sensory Strategies to Help Students with SPD Wear Their Masks

Using a multisensory approach to increase tolerance for mask-wearing can help kids with sensory issues feel more comfortable and be more successful at school.

Here are some techniques to try:

  • Desensitize the student’s mask experience by providing slow, graded exposure to an uncomfortable sensation​.
  • Have students touch and play with a variety of tactile materials and textures​.
  • Provide heavy work and deep pressure input to help calm and organize the student’s proprioceptive system​.
  • Decrease students’ drooling or chewing on the mask by giving them heavy oral motor work (or have multiple masks available)​.
  • Choose mask materials with a neutral scent or no scent at all.
  • Use a slow, calm voice when providing instruction, and include transitional language (for example, “In five minutes, we will go outside. Remember, we will put on our jackets and our masks”).
  • Consider wearing masks with clear windows over the mouth.
  • Maintain predictability around wearing masks as much as possible​.
  • Pair wearing a mask with frequent positive reinforcement, and provide positive reinforcement for students’ small, successive steps toward wearing their masks.
  • Use visual aids to model and reinforce proper mask-wearing (securely over the nose and mouth).
  • Use relatable examples, social stories, and role-play opportunities to help students become accustomed to masks in a safe, secure environment.

A Dozen Steps to Mask Success for Students with SPD 

Here are twelve more practical ways to help children with autism and SPD manage wearing their masks:

  1. Give students their choice​ of a mask.
  2. Include the student in the process of designing, making, and putting on the mask.
  3. Explore a variety of breathable, non-itchy fabrics.
  4. Attach masks to lanyards to prevent losing them, or attach them to headbands or hats with buttons.
  5. Model the comfort and safety of wearing a mask​.
  6. Encourage students to practice wearing their masks at home.
  7. Do fun role plays about wearing a mask.
  8. Gradually increase the amount of time students wear masks each day.
  9. Consider alternative ear attachments to minimize pressure around students’ ears.
  10. Make multiple masks available throughout the day, if needed​.
  11. Provide child-sized masks.
  12. Allow and encourage students to express what they like or dislike about wearing their mask, when possible.

Spend Less Time Struggling with Masks and More Time Succeeding in School

Cloth face masks are most effective at slowing and stopping the spread of the respiratory droplets that carry the coronavirus. But, in some situations you may be able to let students use an alternative—a bandanna or similar scarf, a face shield, a ski mask, or even a hoodie zipped all the way up to cover the mouth and nose. Check and follow school and local health guidelines.

If students continue to have trouble, you may be able to train them to hold the mask to their faces when they are within six feet of other people. At other times, keep them physically distanced from their peers, teachers, and staff, in a classroom or building with proper ventilation. And, be sure all students have opportunities to take breaks from their masks in a safe space.

Without a doubt, some students with sensory processing challenges will have trouble wearing a mask. But, sensory strategies and supports such as those we’ve discussed here can go a long way toward helping them spend less time struggling with masks and more time succeeding in school!

Are you searching for a position where you can help students with sensory processing disorders access and benefit from their education? At PTS, we’re always looking for qualified, quality clinicians ready to do more good for students who have special needs. Browse our currently available opportunities and let us hear from you today!

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