Recently, our church opened for the first time in many weeks. Our family had kept up with “church”, streaming it on our iPads. But we really missed being there in person. It was finally time to return, but we knew we would be facing a new routine in our house of worship. Our adult son with autism, Collin, thrives on routines and avidly memorizes them and has them carefully tagged in his brain—a certain routine for a certain place. How would he react to the new church normal?
On top of that, masks were highly recommended. I get that. We want to protect others. But would the new routine and the sensory invasion of donning a mask drive him into a meltdown and aggressive behavior? I confess, we faced our first Sunday back in church with more fear than faith! I went to God, yes; but I also went to Google. Here’s what I discovered, some of the things we tried, and what worked.
Why wearing a mask can be so difficult
We parents have a sense of what may or may not work with our kids, but sometimes it helps to understand the “why’s”. That way we can more easily target a solution before a problem arises. Here are the top two reasons why wearing a mask can be such a challenge for a person with autism or related disabilities.
Anxiety. While anybody can still breathe with a mask on, the mask does change the way breathing feels. For some people, it feels like suffocation. If that’s the way your child is feeling, no wonder they are anxious. If you would like to duplicate this sensation for yourself, try singing with your mask on! If you wear a mask in church, you will want to make sure you loosen or lower your mask while singing.
Sensory issues. It is very common for people with autism to resist anything that touches the face, neck, or ears. You may have to get creative. For instance, I heard about one mom whose son had a favorite hat which she modified with buttons to hold the ear elastics. If your child will tolerate a cap, check out her idea here.
Wearing a mask can be HOT. Make sure to keep a bit of space between the mask and the mouth/nose. Also, people with heightened sensitivity can be bothered by their own breath within their masks. I know you brush your child’s teeth before you head to church, but you might want to use a mild toothpaste when a mask is needed.
Strategies to prepare for new routines and procedures
Unexpected changes in routine can be more challenging to deal with. Luckily, going back to church was a planned change.
Preparation ahead of time. Collin is an adult and responds to reason much better than he did when he was a child. We were able to talk to him about what to expect when he went back to church. Maybe we would not be able to sit where we were used to sitting. We may need to use a certain entrance door.
We would need to wear masks. We practiced wearing a mask so he could see and feel what it would be like. (If you have a younger child or one with greater sensory discomfort, you may need to work up to wearing the mask in baby steps. Start with just holding the mask and getting used to its appearance and texture. Here’s a video that may also help with wearing a mask.) I wore a mask so Collin could see what that looked like and also that it wasn't bothering me. We took pictures—which Collin loves. We had a little fun. We were a little goofy. We felt a little better.
I should also mention that we prayed! That was the best preparation technique we had and relieved anxiety for Collin and for us, too.
Use of a schedule. You can use this as part of the preparation and then also as a take-along reminder on the day of the event. Some kids do better with a picture schedule; older kids and adults may do well with a written one. If you are just starting out with schedules or if your children are young, they may respond best to photographs, rather than drawings. Get some ideas for visual schedule cards for going to church here. Visual schedules can be used for lots of other things, too.
Readiness to accept small changes. It can help to have a Plan B. We were ready to spend just a few minutes at church on the first Sunday back, and then sort of work back into it. We sat in the back, near the door, in case we had to make a quick exit. Happily, Collin tolerated staying the entire time.
Reinforcement of positive behaviors. Rewards are the fun part! Use whatever works with your child and is appropriate for the venue. Decide ahead of time what “positive behaviors” will look like exactly, and for how long they will need to be maintained. Go for simple behaviors and short durations at first. Limit your list and always make sure there is at least one thing your child can easily achieve and be rewarded for. If your child needs reminders, you may want to try a “First, Then” visual support.
Whichever strategies you use, remember to control your own anxiety. Be calm. Be patient. Be kind. Be prepared for the prospect that maybe none of this will work, no matter how creative and wonderful you are! Remember your Plan B. You should also talk with your pastor about other options that might be available for your family—you might be surprised.
Over to you!
See the comments box below? We would be glad to hear about any ideas that have worked for you in helping your child navigate the new normal.
Joan Van Veen, VP of Marketing at PMF