How to Help Your Child with Autism Wear A Mask

Autism, Self-Help, Sensory, Special Needs Parenting

A few months ago, I thought wearing a mask was something we wouldn’t need to worry about for much longer — maybe just on airplanes.


However, I don’t think masks are going to be a thing of the past any time soon.


With the holiday season coming up, many of us will be traveling and, if that includes an airplane, your child will almost certainly have to wear a mask.


The good news is it’s a skill that can be taught!  Just like using a fork, signing please, and walking!


I’ll tell you how!


And start now — you don’t want to wait until a week before your trip!


COVID, Autism, and Masks — Oh My!


I have been approached by a lot of worried parents because their child needs to wear a mask in certain situations.  Most of the time it’s been because the family will be traveling somewhere.


There isn’t a medical reason their child can’t wear a mask.  Generally it’s because of a sensory issue.  (If your child does have a medical reason they cannot wear a mask, make sure you are talking to the medical professionals who know your child’s history.)


None of us really like wearing a mask, but we understand why they are required in certain instances and we can tolerate a little discomfort.


That’s much harder for a preschooler with autism.


Trying to get your child to wear a mask has also not gone well because a lot of times we’ve just tried to put the mask on with no warning.  That can be very upsetting to a small child with no language, sensory sensitivities, and unable to understand why a mask is necessary.


However, if we change our approach, we can teach our child with autism, sensory sensitivities, or developmental delays to tolerate a mask.


Break Down Mask Wearing Into Steps


My job is to teach new skills to toddlers and preschoolers with developmental delays.  Many times there are a lot of parts to those new skills.  Some examples are standing up, eating a new food, dressing, talking, or using signs.


Each of these skills have several components to them.


Using a task analysis is a great way to break down any skill into the smaller parts.  It allows you to know which parts of this skill does my child already do.  Where do I need to start teaching?


You can use a task analysis for most skills.  Think of all of the steps to making a sandwich, printing a file from your computer, or driving to your child’s school.


We can also use a task analysis to teach our child how to put on (and keep on) a mask.


Get Ready to Teach Mask Wearing


I mentioned above that you’ll want to start teaching well before your child needs to have the mask on.


It can take a while before our toddlers and preschoolers are able to keep a mask on for any length of time.


Plus, you have a lot of other things you’re trying to squeeze into your days.


Give yourself and your child some time to go through this process.  It will decrease everyone’s stress!


Before you start teaching, make sure you’ve done the following:


  • Have several types of masks available.  Your child may tolerate one better than another.
  • Let your child choose their mask if they’re old enough.  Maybe they like one with a particular character on it or a particular color.
  • Choose when you want to practice and stick to it.
  • Choose a time of day when your child is fed and alert.
  • Think about what your child is able to tolerate right now.  Can they touch the mask?  Can they hold a mask?  Tolerate it touching their face for two seconds?  Know your starting point.
  • Gather 3-5 potential reinforcers to use during teaching.  These are the things your child will get AFTER they have done the required step.  Anything that your child can eat, drink, or disappears (bubbles) are your best options.  Screens are tricky because you have to take them away each time.  Make sure they are your child’s favorites AND they only get them during mask practice!  We want those rewards to stay special!


Task Analysis of Wearing a Mask


A task analysis is simply all of the components of a skill or task.  Most of the time, we do this on autopilot and never think about it until we need to teach that skill to someone else.


Tying a shoe, washing hands, getting a bowl of cereal, making a phone call.  We do all of these things without thinking about it, but they all have multiple steps.


When I was in school, we learned to create a task analysis by watching someone complete that skill and writing down all of the steps.


You can do that with mask wearing.


However, I suggest going here!  This website has already done that for you!


You’re Ready to Teach!


You have your materials (mask and rewards).  Your child is fed and alert.  You have a few minutes and some patience.  You’re ready to go!


Here’s how you’re going to teach:


  1. Get rid of as many distractions as possible.  Turn off the TV.  Have something for your other kids to do.
  2. Seat your child in a highchair or somewhere they are comfortable.  Be right in front of them and at their eye level.
  3. Have your reinforcers ready to go.  You’ll need to give it immediately after your child completes the step.
  4. Start with the step that you know your child can easily do.  You want to get some quick wins!  For example, if your child will easily touch the mask with their hand, start there so your child realizes it’s no big deal and then they get something they like.
  5. Model the step.
  6. Have your child complete the same step.  Use physical assistance if needed.
  7. Reward.
  8. Repeat this about 10 times and then take a break.
  9. Try to do this process 2-3 times per day.


Stay on this step until your child can complete it independently 100% of the time for 4-5 sessions (about 10 trials per session).  If you practice twice a day, that means you could move to the next step on day 3.


Mask Troubleshooting


If things were going ok and now progress has stopped or your child refuses to continue with practice, you might need to look at one or more of the following:

  • Check your rewards.  They have might have really loved fruit snacks last week, but they don’t have the same appeal now.  Switch up the reward you’re using.  Make sure it’s something your child really loves!  Also, remember to only let them have that reward during practice times.  Make sure your child isn’t getting access to that item from other people in the home as well.
  • Check your steps.  Did you jump too far ahead too fast?  Go back to where your child was successful and spend a couple of sessions there.  Get some momentum going again.
  • Make a mini step.  Sometimes going from one step to the next is a big leap.  You may need to create a mini step in between.  For example, your child was able to tolerate one loop around the ear, but wouldn’t let you loop the other one around.  You can put the one loop on and bring the other loop halfway on your child’s face (right by their mouth) and leave it there.  You’re pausing halfway between looping one side and the other.
  • Sometimes sensory sensitivities might be the issue.  Are the ear loops bothering your child?  Is the mask too small or tight?  Is it a little scratchy on the inside?  If something like this is bothering your child, you might need to switch to a different type of mask.


If there’s another type of challenge or if your child seems to be stuck at a particular spot, I’d love to hear from you and hopefully I can offer some help more specific to your child’s needs.


Additional Strategies for Mask Wearing


On top of starting where your child is at right now and moving through the steps at their pace, here are some additional strategies:


  • Model wearing a mask.  By now our kids have seen us wearing masks, but continue to model wearing a mask.  You can also include siblings in the practice sessions IF you feel like it won’t be a distraction.
  • Let your child practice in a mirror.  This allows them to see what is happening which can be helpful.
  • Watch this!  Sesame Street put out a video of Julia, who has autism, learning how to wear a mask.
  • Avoid negative talk about wearing a mask.  Even if your child isn’t understanding all of the words you’re using, they can understand the tone of your voice.  Keep the practice sessions fun and short and keep your talk about masks positive!
  • If you’re traveling, check with airlines, hotels, and other place you’ll be to see what their current mask rules are so you know ahead of time.  Ask if there are accommodations for children under a certain age or with special needs.


Masks continue to be a part of our life and learning to wear one has become an important life skill.  Helping your child learn how to wear a mask will also allow them to do all of the activities that other families and kids are involved in.  Therefore, it’s important that we teach this skill!


How did it go?  I’d love to hear about your successes or tricky times!  Feel free to contact me and I’d love to help!












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