Autism and Masks: What I learned from being a clown

Autism and Masks: What I learned from being a clown that will help children with autism

I’ve been thinking about what to write about dealing with autism and masks. As the stay-at-home requirements are easing, using masks is becoming the recommendation or requirement. It will be a huge challenge for some children with autism and their families.  Lots of reasons why.

Aha. . .Then I remembered my clown days
I think many of us have some jobs in our past that people don’t know about. Well, here’s one. I’ll bet you didn’t know that I used to be a clown! (My parents used to own an amusement park and . . . well, you understand “family businesses”).

I learned some important things about children
This is all kids.  Not specifically autism. Some of those kids just ran up to me and engaged.  Simple. Some eased up. And then there were those who held back.

Three things I learned to do for those where were afraid 

  1. Lay back and let them take their time
    If I approached them, it would increase their fear or hesitation. So I just waited for them.

  2. Get down on their level
    Most of the time, younger kids are much smaller than I am. Getting down to their level helped them see me better

  3. Move very slowly and put my hand out 
    Quick movement can be frightening. Strangely, a hand out served as a bridge to connect.  I didn’t try to touch them. But many times they would try to touch me. Sometimes I held something like a balloon which they eventually would take.

And then I had another idea
Later, as I was working with children in an autism program, I remembered my clown clothes and brought them to school. I created some wonderful language lessons with my ability to become a clown. The kids loved the activities and became very engaged. 

Here’s what I did

  1. Look like myself
    I entered their environment looking like myself. That established who I was.  No surprises.

  2. Let them watch me change
    I let them watch me put on my hair and nose and the rest of my outfit.  Sometimes I would put them on, take them off, and put them on again. This was a slow activity which enabled lots of talking. Great language opportunities. They described what I did. They could tell me what to put on or take off. 

  3. Let them try my gear
    They could choose something to put on. They could tell each other what do. More talking.  But they were not afraid of the gear by now. It became familiar to them.

How does this relate to autism and masks for the Coronavirus?

*** First, I want to make it clear that at this time we need to follow the current health guidelines related to touching and sharing.  It was a "different time" when I did this activity. Sharing gear isn’t a good idea now, but students can have their own individual items.

Bottom line, every child is different. But the same general principles can apply.

  • No surprises
  • Get on the child’s level
  • Go at the child’s speed
  • Be yourself first
  • Then let them see the changes take place
  • Let them explore by trying on 
  • Make it a game, a fun activity
  • Make this a slow activity. Don't rush.

And I’ll add this . . .

There are actually two parts to this whole autism mask thing. One is seeing others wear masks.  The other is the child wearing his or her own mask. Remember to address both parts.

Take pictures & play games

Take a photo of each family member with a mask and another photo without a mask. Then play a matching game.

 Play doctor. Play games. Play “Who are you?” Get creative.

 Do it now

 Take time now to look and try and practice. The worst thing for most of our students with autism is to rush into some kind of change. Trying to quickly put a mask on a child with autism without preparation is an invitation for disaster. 

 And remember that these kids learn patterns and routines.  Once they learn to react negatively toward a mask, it will be difficult to change that pattern.

P.S. I couldn’t find a colored picture, so I think it will help to explain that I had shocking green hair and a bright red nose.

 P.S.S. Parents who have children with autism can really struggle, especially during all the life changes right now.  I see their posts crossing my Facebook feed every day. A big reason for their frustrations is that they haven’t really figured out their child’s “autism formula” yet. Be patient and take the time to learn during this challenging time.

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    1. Becoming a clown is a good thing if you think of putting on a constume so you can have fun and you can entertain people like I did for the children in my school. It is not a good thing if you think that becoming a clown is a way to hide from other people.

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