A Kamloops grandmother wants to get the word out that not all customers are able to wear masks during the pandemic.
The woman, who asked that her name not be published to protect her family, said her granddaughter has been through at least two stressful situations due to employees and customers of businesses not understanding the issues impacting people on the autism spectrum.
Her seven-year-old granddaughter is on the autism spectrum and has sensory issues, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the girl to wear a mask.
“I’m hoping to educate,” she said. “Everyone doesn’t understand the concept of someone being unable to wear a mask. When approached with no understanding and literally being bullied or attacked, we, as the caregiver, start to react with a hurt so emotionally deep that it appears as anger. It’s a fear of what’s going to be said next, or actions taken next.”
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and non-verbal communication. Autism Canada reports that the consensus among health professionals is that autism is a neurodevelopmental condition.
In one incident, grandmother and granddaughter were in a Kamloops store when they were approached by a staff member who noticed the girl was maskless.
“I whisper the same issue so that it’s not broadcast all over and they understood and they left us alone,” she said. After collecting their items, the pair was standing in line at the till, on a blue social-distancing dot on the floor.
“I’m explaining that this is our blue dot for social distancing because I’m trying to show her life skills and I’m telling her that this is what the blue dots are and we have to stay on it until the next blue dot is available,” the woman said.
Right then, a customer ahead of them turned, held up her hand and told grandmother and granddaughter to steer clear.
“She said, ‘Don’t come near me. You could bring COVID to me, I could take it home and I could kill my dad, my mom and my husband.’ And my little girl says, ‘I’m not a criminal.’ And I said, ‘No, honey, you’re sure not a criminal.’ I said, ‘That’s one really nasty lady.’”
What followed was a situation with staff and another customer, all of whom had to be told why the seven-year-old girl could not wear a mask. By way of an apology, store brass later asked if they could arrange a special day for the granddaughter to shop.
“And I said, ‘No, you can’t.’ I said you can educate your staff on autism and you can educate your staff on Dr. Bonnie Henry’s policy,” the grandmother recounted. “And I said that’s all we want. We don’t want materialistic stuff, so she said she would do that.”
For two days after that incident, the grandmother said, her granddaughter wore rubber gloves at home as she was afraid she would spread COVID-19 to others.
A second incident occurred in another store, where staff declined to allow the granddaughter in without a mask, even after having her sensory issue situation explained to them. A compromise had the girl wearing a face shield while grandmother picked up her hearing aids. Staff said she was to sit in a chair and not touch anything.
“And she’s got it (face shield) upside down and she’s wearing it backwards and she’s touching stuff and I kept saying, ‘Honey don’t do that, honey don’t do that.’ And, you now what? Unless you have an autistic child, you don’t get it.”
That was followed by a confrontation later in the store in which staff insisted she wear a mask after being told why the girl could not do so.
While this was happening, voices rose.
“She put her little arms out and she said, ‘OK, OK, next time you guys be together. You be friends. I put my hands on her head and said, ‘Honey, people could so learn from you.’”
“When we were done, we left. And by this time, I’m crying outside. I’m shaking.”
She simply wants people to understand the sensitivity issue some people with autism have.
“I would tell them if you’re a panicking person and you are afraid of this, then I think that you’re wearing your mask, you’re social distancing time, I’m social distancing, [granddaughter] is social distancing. Why are you afraid? We’re not touching you. We’re not coming near you. They have to understand that the sensitivity these people have, they’re real, they’re so real.”
In May 2020, when recommending people wear masks in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19, national Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam warned against judging those who can’t wear them.
“Be very aware of those with different types of cognitive, intellectual disabilities, those who are hearing impaired and others,” Tam said.
Dominique Payment, family support representative for Autism Canada, said people on the spectrum can have trouble with sensory processing.
"They also have tactile, olfactory and nervous-system hypersensitivity that wearing a mask could aggravate,” she said. “It could cause some serious challenges. Because their senses are so heightened, it affects everything.”
Payment has two children on the autism spectrum. One is anxious about masks because he associates them with having his teeth cleaned at the dentist, which he dislikes.
“Unfortunately, this whole COVID situation and everyone wearing masks can cause some anxiety for these children because they are associating with not-so-positive experiences.”
Did you know?
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s 2018 report, Autism Spectrum Disorder Among Children and Youth in Canada:
• Among children and youth ages five to 17, the combined prevalence of autism spectrum disorder is one in 66 (15.2 children and youth per 1,000).
• Males are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder four times more frequently than females — one in 42 males (23.9 per 1,000) and one in 165 females (6.0 per 1,000) ages five to 17.
• More than half of children and youth are diagnosed by age six. More than 90 per cent are diagnosed by age 12.
• For more information about autism spectrum disorder, go online to autismcanada.org.