Due to the current health pandemic that has been created by Covid-19, the Center for Disease control recommends “that you wear masks in public settings around people who don’t live in your household and when you can’t stay 6 feet away from others. Masks help stop the spread of COVID-19 to others.” This guideline can be challenging for all children, especially those on the autism spectrum and those with sensory sensitivities. The skill of learning how to wear a mask is especially important for children as it’s a necessary precaution for them to return to school. In person learning helps generalization of skills. It promotes children learning in their natural environment and it supports social opportunities outside of the home.
Although challenging, these rules do not discriminate due sensitivities or diagnoses, so compliance is required in order to participate with others at stores, restaurants, parks, social gatherings and travel. This fact has been highlighted recently in the news by airlines prohibiting children with autism from traveling if they are not wearing a mask. Attempting to force children, especially those on the spectrum, to wear a mask is likely to cause a drastic increase in anxiety and challenging behavior. This method also has the potential to create an aversion to masks, making it less likely that they will be able to learn to wear a mask in the future.
Teaching your child to wear a mask when outside the home, may seem like an impossible task, but there are strategies that can be used to desensitize sensitivities and encourage mask wearing. Before implementing these approaches, understand that this is a process and may take some time, so be patient with your child and make sure that if your child begins to reject the mask, you may need to take a step back.
A few ideas to get you set up for success:
- Choose a mask that your child is likely to be drawn to. Whether the mask is the child’s favorite color, has a character that your child likes, or you decorate a mask together, allowing them to choose what mask is theirs will help them want to engage with it. Due to the necessity of masks in recent months, they can be found in many stores and online vendors, and can fit around the ears, back of the head or around the neck and be pulled up (gator masks). You may need to try a few different types before you find the perfect fit for your child. Cloth masks will need to be washed and disposable masks will need to be replaced frequently, so it may be necessary to buy multiple masks when being worn regularly.
- Set up a reward system to reinforce your child for participating. Depending on what is more appropriate for you child, you may need small rewards that can be delivered frequently after each step like treats or stickers, or tokens that can be earned to get a big reward at the end like when using a reward chart or token board.
- Create opportunities for the child to put a mask on you and/or a special toy. As you go through this process, allow your child to see you and/or their favorite stuffed animal wearing a mask as well and let them practice putting the mask on you and the toy. You can use phrases like “Teddy needs to wear a mask too, let’s put one on him.”
After you have selected your child’s mask(s), have appropriate reinforcers and have a toy to practice with, you are ready to start the process. Depending on your child’s level of aversion towards wearing a mask, you may be able to skip some of these steps or move to the next step quickly. Alternately, some may need to be worked on for longer, so feel free to try to move forward, but if the child struggles with the next step, then it may be necessary to go back to the previous step for a longer period of time.
- Begin by having the mask in the environment where the child is, so that they get accustomed to having it near them. Move the mask closer to them and begin to talk about it, show them how you put it on yourself and/or on their toy.
- Have your child touch the mask with their hands, then touch it to their face, and eventually put the mask on. This step could be done at one time, or over hours or days, as you may need to give your child time in between each trial. You may be able to skip some of these or need to add in more “feeling” the mask opportunities. Remember that if at any point during this step the child has an aversive reaction, that next opportunity you will go back to the previous step. After each part of this step, immediately remove the mask and provide a reward, as this is not to get them to actually wear it, but to experiment with how it feels.
- Once the child can tolerate putting on the mask and having it immediately removed, you will begin to extend the time that they wear it. This can be done by counting seconds together, setting a timer, wearing the mask into another room or area, doing a preferred activity during this time, or allowing the child to play with a preferred item while wearing their mask. You will do this step multiple times a day, until you child can tolerate wearing the mask for whatever specified amount of time that you choose. Be sure to reinforce after each trial.
- After your child is wearing the mask for the time of your choosing with no aversion, then it is time to begin to experiment with wearing it outside the home. Initially, choose a familiar place, that the child enjoys going to and that is easy to get in and out of in a short amount of time. Some suggestions for this would be going into a frozen yogurt store, convenient store, grocery store or walking into a restaurant to get a pickup order. After the child gets accustomed to these short trips and is able to wear the mask with no problems, then begin to extend the time of the trips out of the house.
Once your child is consistently wearing a mask in the community, they should remain comfortable with it. If your child infrequently goes out in public wearing a mask, you may need to practice at home to retain the skill. It is hard to know how long masks will remain a fixture in our lives, but helping your child learn to wear one, will help to protect them and others and allow them to participate in everyday life.
Early detection and intervention for babies who are on the Autism Spectrum:
Early detection of autism characteristics is crucial in your child’s journey to treatment. Although a new diagnosis or suspicion of autism may be an emotional challenge, it is very important to the child’s growth and development. Early detection and diagnosis can open many opportunities for treatment, support, and early intervention.
What is Autism? What are the early signs to watch for?
Autism is a spectrum disorder under the category of developmental delay. A spectrum disorder is characterized by a number of symptoms that may or may not be present with varying severity. Symptoms of autism may include impaired social skills ( poor eye contact, lack of affection, lack of empathy, disinterest in peers or toys etc.) , impaired communication abilities (repetitive speech, impaired vocal communication etc.), and be accompanied by repetitive behavior (fixation on various topics or interests, rocking, hand flapping, toe walking etc.).
5 signs or symptoms of Autism in babies:
- Minimal response to sounds and familiar voices is another common characteristic. You may notice your child does not flinch or seem to register loud noises in the environment, he or she may not respond to your voice when you call or speak to them.
- Lack of gestural communication to get attentions such as holding arms out, pointing, waving, or shaking head.
- Your child may not make vocalizations such as cooing, babbling, or other baby talk. Many parents begin to feel concerned when they notice that their child is not speaking or attempting to make vocal sounds during infancy.
- Disinterest in acts of affection such as cuddles, hugs, or other forms of touch. Many children with autism are sensory sensitive and may not like to be touched, other children simply lack interest in these social practices.
- Delayed imitation typically relating to “watch and learn” behaviors from parents, siblings, or other children.
Delayed milestones and early warning signs does not guarantee an Autism diagnosis:
Although your child may demonstrate delays in similar area’s listed above, a single symptom may not mean autism. Autism is diagnosed based on a collective number of symptoms causing impairment of functioning. Your diagnostician will provide testing to rule out other potential medical or cognitive possibilities or confirm an autism diagnosis.
What should parents do if they detect any of these red flags?
If you have concerns about your child’s development it is important to discuss this with your pediatrician. Your child’s doctor may not detect these signs during a short routine visit and it is important to notify them of any concerns you have.
Although autism can seem like a scary thing the most important thing to remember is to advocate for your child’s needs. Early detection can allow early intensive therapies to minimize the symptoms and teach your child the skills they need to grow and learn.
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A Comfortable Environment for the Child
Reinforcers – Using each child’s favorite toy and activity.
Involvement of other family members
With the rapid spread of COVID-19, we saw a drastic shift in how many students would be learning at the start of the Fall 2020 school year. There are a few different learning modals that are being followed by different school districts. Many children are fully remote, having all their learning occur via an online platform. Some children are spending 2-4 days a week in person at school, with shortened days and additional e-learning occurring at home. And finally, several school districts have chosen to return to school full time with precautions in place.
E-learning can be a difficult transition for children with ASD for several reasons. The fact that they will be required to attend to a computer for long periods of time, with the added distractor of being at home can pose a challenge. There may also be longer periods of downtime, while the teacher is asking other students questions or prepping for the next activity. Many kids use IPads or computers for leisure activities, and they may be tempted to exit out of their e-learning platform to engage in other activities. Finally, the change in routine can be incredibly challenging for children, the idea of going to school but remaining home can be difficult to understand or adjust to.
There are several things parents can do to help support their children with ASD when it comes to e-learning. Visual schedules and calendars to help their children prepare for their day and attend to tasks as needed. This can help ease some anxiety and transitions between classes. It can also detail which class they will be attending, and which teacher will be leading the class. Helping prep the learning area at home can support success when it comes to e-learning. Providing the child with a decluttered workspace, removing as many distractions as possible. Also providing an environment with minimal noise, and if needed have fidgets to help with any needed movement breaks and support focus on each class/task.
Parents can also reach out to their child’s teacher for any resources to help familiarize the child to the new virtual learning platform. There are also support groups available for parents to help gain additional ideas to support children with the new platform for learning this school year. Finally, parents can request IEP meetings to discuss appropriate supports for their children during remote learning. These meetings can be used to discuss any needed changes to the content or methods of instruction.
2020 marked a huge change to our educational system and with that many challenges arose for our children. Parents can help prepare their students for the changes in their learning platforms in a few different ways. Preparing our students in advance can help them anticipate the changes, and possibly make the transition a little smoother. Establishing daily routines can also help a child adjust to their new learning platform. Visual schedules can help support the new routine and guide e-learning. Online learning can be confusing to some children, as they may be only used to using their IPads/computers for leisure activities. Helping them understand when it is time for e-learning and when it is time to play can help them understand how they are using their devices at a given time. If additional supports are needed, parents can reach out to either their child’s teacher or call for an IEP meeting. Additional resources/accommodations can be made to ensure a child is able to succeed with their new e-learning platform.
For children with autism, going back to school after summer break can be an exciting time. However, with the current circumstances surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic, it may make for a more difficult transition to in-person or e-learning. Here are some tips on how you can enhance learning for your child in the classroom.
- Provide your child’s teacher with as much information as possible. Information like your child’s likes, dislikes, favorite sensory activities, and favorite extracurricular activities can help your child’s teacher decide on the best method of teaching for your child.
- Meet with your child’s teacher if possible. Meeting with your child’s teacher in person or over a video call allows you to ask questions that may be easier to ask than over email. Not to mention, participating in meetings with your child’s teacher shows them you’re serious about their education and looking to put forth the most effort to help your child succeed.
- Share your child’s diagnosis with their teacher. As a parent, sharing your child’s diagnosis with their peers is a personal decision, but sharing their diagnosis with their teacher with full disclosure offers clarity for learning methods and how the teacher may handle and understand your child.
While the COVID-19 pandemic can be a stressful time, your child’s education is still important. Allowing yourself to embrace the recent changes with your child may make it easier for them to adjust to the changes they will face this upcoming school year.