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January 2021

How to Make Mask-Wearing Easier for Children with Special Needs

Between therapy, school, and doctor’s visits, families of children with special needs already juggle a lot. Now, there’s an added twist: Many children ages 2 and older must wear cloth face coverings in public.

These nonmedical masks serve as an important way to protect your family—and your community—from the spread of COVID-19. But it’s not always simple for kids with chronic conditions or disabilities to adapt to them.

Comprehend the challenges

Kids with cognitive or respiratory issues might have a hard time putting on or breathing through a mask. Those who thrive on routine, such as children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), may struggle to accept yet another disruption.

In addition, many children with ASD are highly sensitive to touch. Wearing fabric against their faces can seem extra scratchy, damp, restrictive, and smelly.

Plus, masks obscure faces, muffle voices, and leave only the eyes visible. Kids who communicate differently may feel isolated and overwhelmed in a masked world.

Communication and comfort are key

To start, make mask-wearing a shared pursuit. Put masks on together and look at yourselves in the mirror. You can also place one on a favorite doll or stuffed animal.

Explain in simple, clear language—or using pictures—that masks keep everyone safe. Acknowledge masks might feel snug or uncomfortable. But stress that over time, wearing them gets easier.

Make it happen by:

  • Offering your child a variety of masks to choose from. If hearing or communication is an issue, try masks that show mouths through a plastic window. Sample different fabrics—typically, the softer, the better—and closures. Masks that tie around the head, button or circle around the neck, or attach to eyeglasses or headbands may irritate children less than those with ear loops.

  • Starting kids off wearing masks at home for short periods. Eventually, plan outings to calm, quiet spaces.

  • Using gum or hard candy, when age-appropriate, to reduce unpleasant tastes and smells underneath face coverings. However, be mindful of the risk of choking.

  • Practicing removing masks safely—without touching the front—and placing them directly in the laundry. Also practice washing hands before putting masks on and after taking them off.

Some children—such as those who can’t remove masks on their own—shouldn’t wear them. Consult your child’s healthcare provider if you have concerns.


Online Medical Reviewer: Ray Turley, BSN, MSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Rina Lazebnik, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2020
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