Autism, hard-of-hearing advocates ask for kindness with mask regulation

Although masks are now mandatory in all indoor public spaces in the province, some organizations are reminding people that there will be certain people who will have to go without.

Masks can trigger sensory sensitivities, create lip reading challenges

While masks are now mandatory in indoor public settings, wearing them poses a challenge for some individuals. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Some organizations are asking for public patience, kindness and understanding as some people they represent won't be able to follow the mandatory mask order that came into effect across Newfoundland and Labrador Monday.

"Not all diagnoses are visible and some people aren't wearing a mask because they can't wear a mask, not because they are choosing not to," said Sarah White, the family and community support officer for the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador. 

White said COVID-19 has already been hard on people with autism spectrum disorder as they rely on routines that, in many cases, the pandemic has disrupted. Mask-wearing adds in another change, that will require another adjustment.

"Prior to COVID, if you went into a business with a mask on or a hood up you were immediately asked to leave. But now if you don't go in with a mask on you are asked to leave, so it's that change in routine that is a big challenge," White said. 

Sarah White of the Autism Society says the pandemic has disrupted routines that help people with autism operate, and the mask order adds in yet another change. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

There also might be challenges with sensory sensitivities. For some people with autism, the texture of the mask on their face or the feeling behind the ears might prevent them from wearing it. Another issue could be the smell of their own breath in the mask. 

"We are a community, we are here to support each other. There are many many people, for many reasons, who may not be able to wear a mask. Be kind, be kind to one another," she said.

Leon Mills says in some cases, people may need to take their masks off to communicate with someone has hearing issues. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

As of Monday, most people over the age of five must wear a mask in most indoor public settings. The provincial government has made exceptions to the mask mandate for people with mental or physical conditions, including for those with autism. 

Hard to communicate 

Mandatory masks have also made it tougher for those in the hard-of-hearing community, as masks eliminate the ability to read lips and certain facial cues.

"It can be pretty challenging to figure out what a person is saying, especially if you're at a little bit of distance," said Leon Mills, executive director of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Mills said hard-of-hearing people should self-identify if they are having trouble communicating through a mask. The person on the other end of the conversation should speak up, enunciate and slow down their speech. 

If that doesn't work, you might have to take the mask off. 

"Maybe step back five or six feet and remove the mask, and speak a little bit louder and a little bit clearer," he said. 

As people have different levels of hearing and rely differently on lip reading, sign language and sound levels, Mills said writing something down or using smartphone speech-to-text apps are also options.

But there's one thing Mills believes everyone should be doing regardless. 

"I think the most important thing is that people need to have patience with each other and be respectful and be kind," he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador