It was just a couple of months ago—but it feels like years ago, now—when my partner and I received a package of fabric masks. My sister dropped them off at our home and rushed away so that we wouldn't come into contact with her. My husband and I wore them when we went to get tested for COVID-19. Thankfully, we were negative, but all the talk about the coronavirus wasn't lost on our 4 year old son.
My 4-year-old, a non-neurotypical child with sensory issues, surprised everyone by demanding his own mask. While adults all around us are rejecting masks, my baby—who has every reason to reject them—embraced wearing something unfamiliar and uncomfortable on his face.
This little kid who has sensory issues and hates it when he has to wear anything besides a very specific kind of jeans from the GAP, who can't stand a collar or tags that itch or elastic waistbands that are a smidge too tight, whose whole routine was disrupted by the pandemic, demanded a mask.
"I need a blue one," he told me in his sweet baby voice. "Because of the virus."
I was so surprised that he would even want to wear one. This is a kid who refuses the painting smock at day care, refuses to wear a pinny in gym class, who struggles with things like raincoats and who even in babyhood acted like bibs would kill him. I had been so sure that it would be a problem, I'd basically just planned to keep him in the house until the world was safer. But when we explained why mom and dad were wearing the masks, he wanted one, too.
When his little blue fabric mask arrived in our mailbox he was very excited. As I slipped the elastic loops over his tiny ears I wondered how long he would keep it on. Minutes, I figured.
That elastic, tight and unfamiliar against his soft ears—that's got to be bothering him, I thought. All that blue fabric, stretched across a little face that won't even wear a scarf in the winter—that's got to be bothering him, I thought. This is going to be a sensory issue, I thought, counting the minutes.
He wore it all afternoon.
And so a new part of our routine was formed. Routine is so important in our family, and the mask became central to our going out dance. Shoes, backpack, mask. Got to have the mask.
Going out is still kind of rare, because as my son knows all too well, most of his favorite places are still closed or not safe for our family right now. He will rattle off the list of places that are closed—"the pool, the library, the ice cream shop"—and tell you that "people still have germs" and that "the coronavirus is a powerful virus."
But when we have to go to an appointment, or when I'm stuck without childcare and have to take him into the grocery store, the mask goes on. He doesn't fight it at all (unless it's dirty, he cannot bear cookie crumbs or a smear of chocolate on his mask) and tells people why he wears it.
He gets it.
What he doesn't get is why other people don't wear them. His whole routine, his whole carefully planned social schedule, has been completely disrupted by the pandemic. He wants it to end. He wants to keep older people safe. He does his part. And when he sees people out and about without masks he is confused.
"Why doesn't that guy have a mask, mom?" he asked me way too loudly when we ran into a store to grab an online order.
"Maybe he forgot it," I told him. Maybe all the people who are out and about right now without their masks forgot them. Maybe the men who loudly complained about our local golf course closing simply forgot their masks when it reopened. Maybe the people lining up to get into home goods stores the first day they reopened forgot their masks.
And this week my child, who has so many sensory issues and all the reasons in the world to throw a fit about wearing a mask, will put his mask on and wear it to his newly re-opened day care.
"He's so good about it," his teachers say. "He keeps it on all day. He sets a good example."
Yeah, he does. And he's a 4-year-old with special needs. If he can do it, we all can. We can protect each other, save lives...and we can get our lives back.
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