Face Masks - Barriers in communication for autistic people

As the government imposes 'smarter controls' to limit the spread the coronavirus until a vaccine is found, the public have been advised to wear face coverings in crowded places where social distancing isn't possible, such as on public transport or in some shops.The government has published a 60-page document called Our Plan to Rebuild.

More outdoor activities are being allowed but the public are expected to take extra caution, including by wearing face coverings in some situations. People should “wear a face covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible and they come into contact with others that they do not normally meet, for example on public transport or in some shops”, the government document says. This will help prevent people who have the virus but are not experiencing symptoms from passing it on to others.

The public are urged not to buy surgical or medical masks, needed for frontline carers, but instead to use scarves or make their own DIY masks.

These new guidelines raise new challenges for some autistic people. Autistic people sometimes have difficulty in understanding facial expressions in ‘normal’ (pre-Covid-19) times.The new guidelines for people to wear masks will make it even more difficult for some autistic people to understand facial expressions as body language in communication will be restricted to what the eyes can tell us.

Face coverings can be a barrier for processing social communication, which everyone is experiencing now, but poses more challenges for autistic people.Communication associated with mask wearing is very much reliant on eye contact, which some autistic people would have found difficult before the pandemic.With such a focus now on eyes, this can be difficult for autistic people.This can make people feel even more self-conscious and it changes the nature of social interactions, sometimes to become even more bewildering than ‘normal’.Communicating with others wearing masks can make social situations feel abnormal, awkward and even more scary for autistic people.It can be upsetting and unsettling for normal social routines and social structures to be disrupted by the need to wear masks.

Another level of ambiguity are the new social conventions on wearing a face mask and reacting to others wearing them.

The sensory aspects of wearing a mask also poses other challenges for autistic people as some autistic people struggle with the sensation and texture of masks.So the autistic community seeks understanding of the sensory challenges posed by masks and that some autistic people will not be able to wear a mask due to the sensory issues.

The Irish Minister for Health Simon Harris provided clarification that some people may not be in a position to wear a mask with the following statement. "The guidance suggests that people under the age of 13 should not wear face coverings and also there are people with certain medical conditions, and people with allergies or perhaps autistic people who find the material, from a sensitivity point of view, to be too difficult to wear. So, not everybody is in a position to wear a face covering and it is not mandatory, what it simply is, is guidance as an extra hygiene measure that people may wish to consider in certain circumstances."

On the other hand, the new social norm to wear a face mask also provides new opportunities for greater understanding of autism, since more neurotypical people can now experience how facial expressions can be difficult to read.Many autistic people find a coping strategy for life has been to ‘mask’ their autistic traits, our new social norms could provide insight into masking for neurotypical people.

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