Unmasking Sensory Processing Disorder

While most of us can bear wearing a mask on the daily, some individuals struggle with it

Art+by+Ella+Cuneo.+Individuals+with+Sensory+Processing+disorder+struggle+to+wear+a+mask+because+it+can+cause+overstimulation.

Ella Cuneo

Art by Ella Cuneo. Individuals with Sensory Processing disorder struggle to wear a mask because it can cause overstimulation.

By Daphne Kraushaar and Maya Goldwasser

As you head out the door in the morning on your way to start the day, you’re probably reaching for your phone, wallet, keys, and in this day in age, of course, a mask. For months, all of us have been forced to adjust to this new normal. We know that the mask may not be your favorite accessory, and can be uncomfortable at times. However, for some people, wearing a mask causes a whole lot more than a little discomfort. The uprise in individuals claiming to have medical issues to get out of wearing a mask affects those who deeply struggle to keep a mask on.
Imagine feeling like that small piece of fabric was posing some sort of threat to you.
Dr. Darci Garavaglia (Dr. G), an occupational therapist for SSD said that, “For someone with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), wearing a mask can physically cause them pain.” However, this is not true for everyone. Yara Levin is 16 years old and has been struggling with SPD since she was a toddler. Levin said, “It really depends on the person, I know some people with SPD who really can’t stand to wear masks at all and I was really worried I would be one of those people.”
Sensory Processing Disorder is a neurological disorder where a person’s body has an abnormal or magnified response to receiving sensory information. These types of responses can be placed in a group called sensory overload. The brain does its best to interpret the information taken from the outside world via your five senses, but for individuals who struggle with SPD, there can be obstacles during that processing period.
“I have problems with loud noises, and certain types of noises that can trigger a fight or flight response,” Levin explained.
SPD can also be common with other disorders, such as autism, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, or even hyperactivity. Sensory Processing Disorder is not something that can be cured, but that does not mean individuals that are diagnosed are bound to have it the rest of their lives. There are many tools and strategies used to help people with SPD get used to new senses such as masks because they are important in protecting the life of both the individual and society. Luckily, there are ways to combat this.

Sometimes you can help a person get through their aversion by slowly introducing themselves to what they are averse to”

— Dr. Darci Garavagila

According to STAR Institute, one in 20 people deal with SPD every day. But, just like most disorders, there is a spectrum. For some people, getting comfortable with the mask could be as simple as seeing other people wearing them in public while not in distress. However, it might take something called Sensory Integration Therapy for others. Dr. G explained, “Sometimes you can help a person get through their aversion by slowly introducing themselves to what they are averse to.”
This technique was designed for people living with SPD to slowly become comfortable with new noise, tactile, taste, and visual sensations.
For a tactile sensitivity like mask-wearing, parents, and caregivers across the country have found that letting their child hold and touch the mask in a non-vital situation can be very helpful. Allowing them to feel it on their skin repeatedly can help those with SPD develop a greater sense of comfort.

A social mask

It is important to remember that one mask certainly does not fit all! When figuring out why a child is struggling to wear a mask, Dr. G said, “First we need to make sure that students have a mask that is comfortable and fits them.”
Parents have had success using something called “A Social Mask,” which allows the child to see through the mask and be able to better read facial cues. For others, the ear loops can pose quite a challenge, because they are constantly rubbing against their ears. Innovative parents have solved this problem by placing hooks on hats, headbands or glasses, and allowing the straps to rest there, instead of behind their ears. Although Levin does not have an extreme problem with wearing masks, having them go behind her ears can be very uncomfortable. To help with this her mom has helped to sew her masks that tie behind her head. Even with these solutions, getting used to a mask can be extremely time consuming for certain people because coping with the new stimulus from a mask takes patience and strength.
Everyone’s journey with SPD is unique, and while the process may not be easy or simple. Dr. G. reminds us, “We need to be understanding and tolerate that not everyone reacts the same way to different things.”

This story was originally published on The Globe on December 18, 2020.