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A Sensory Desensitization Program for Mask Wearing

Sensory Desensitization

Face masks are becoming more and more common, especially as restaurants, salons, and other public spaces start to open up. It can be uncomfortable at first to wear a mask, especially for those sensory sensitivities.

Many sensory sensitivities are difficult to understand, and if you have sensory sensitivity, you’re probably no stranger to sensory overload. However, a sensory desensitization program can help those sensory sensitivities to masks.

Many sensory sensitive people are sensory defensive, which means they avoid sensory stimulation at all costs. Unfortunately, this can lead to sensory deprivation and become even more problematic overtime. This sensory desensitization program is a way of decreasing your sensory sensitivity by exposing yourself to the stimuli that triggers you.

This will slowly rewire your brain’s response to sensory overload, so you will eventually become less sensory defensive. In order to complete sensory desensitization, it is important that you slowly expose yourself to sensory stimuli. Progressively exposing yourself too quickly can cause sensory overload and shut your brain down. That’s why it’s best to start off wearing masks in public places, such as at restaurants and salons.

Below are the steps you can take for sensory desensitization. This process can help with mask wearing so you can continue to keep yourself and everyone around us safe.

Sensory Desensitization Face Mapping

This is a reflex that assists in desensitizing the face. A sensory mapping is a tool that helps us learn how sensory stimuli affects our sensory systems. In sensory desensitization, a sensory map is created by using sensory stimuli to measure reactions and responses. This can be done in person or remotely and is often used as part of occupational therapy to help people handle sensory overload.

By creating sensory maps and tracking results, sensory desensitization can assist in sensory issues. Tracking progress can help adjust the sensory stimuli for each person to ensure they are getting maximum input.

Therapeutic Brushing

Known for assisting with desensitization. Although it cannot be done on the face, it can assist with regulation, calming and body awareness prior to putting on a mask. Therapeutic brushing is often used by OT’s to assess sensory issues. This sensory input technique provides proprioceptive and deep pressure sensory input thus helping to calm the sensory systems.

Sensory Desensitization wearing masks in public
A Sensory Desensitization Program for Mask Wearing 2

Environmental Tolerance

It is important for people to tolerate masks being on others and in their environment before they can tolerate it on themselves. Wear your mask around the house near those who you are trying to desensitize (as tolerated). Putting it on their favorite bear, toy or doll can also be helpful.

Mask Sensitivity Approaches

Make sensory desensitization masks for your children, family members, friends and clients. By putting the mask on something familiar (favorite teddy bear), it helps to put their sensory system at ease. Making sensory masks is a great way to help build environmental tolerance

Reading Social Stories

Social stories on personal protective equipment (PPE), temperature taking and COVID-19 can help in understanding and knowing what to expect in situations where it is required.

Decorating/Personalizing

Decorate surgical masks to improve their tolerance and assist with making masks not so scary. Superheros and favorite shows/characters are always good ideas. If you have cloth masks, choose a fabric to the liking of the other person and make a mask out of it. Using an old t-shirt with a picture of a character/show can also be used. Videos on how to create at home sew and no sew masks with fabric and t-shirts can be found on Youtube. 

Timed Trials

Time trials on phone and remove mask from face and area when timer goes off so they know what is to be expected of them. Start with trials lasting only a couple of seconds and focus on just touching the mask. Increase the tolerance to touching with hands until they are able to tolerate for at least 5 minutes without aversion. Once tolerated, have them bring the mask to their mouth (without putting around their ears or tying behind their head) and touch their face for one second.

Continue to build tolerance until they can hold without aversion. Then begin with trials with mask tied around the head or around the ears. Continue to gain tolerance until they can tolerate it on their face for an hour. When doing longer trials, it may help if you are also wearing a mask and engaged in a game while doing so.  

Helpful Tips for Desensitization

  • It is important to understand that this will take quite a bit of time to assist in desensitizing and should be done multiple times a day as tolerated.
  • Do not move onto another step if they are unable to tolerate a lower level because it will make them lose trust and desire to complete again.
  • Remember to use the same type of mask throughout the trials, either a surgical mask or fabric mask and either a tie around the head or behind the ears in order to make it consistent. 

To help sensory desensitization, sensory therapists recommend:

– to start small and gradually increase exposure time

– provide sensory storybooks to explain the sensory experience

– sensory breaks, such as a sensory diet

– sensory exercises such as brushing teeth or taking a shower

– calming sensory activities like deep pressure or sensory games

– sensory tools such as noise cancelling headphones or a weighted blanket

– finger squeezes, hugs, or other physical sensory input

– provide visual aids such as masks to alleviate the sensory needs of others in close proximity

As public spaces continue to open up and face masks become more common, sensory therapists are recommending sensory desensitization programs. These sensory therapy tools can help desensitize sensory systems by starting small and gradually increasing sensory exposure times as well as providing sensory storybooks to explain the sensory experience.

Our clinic specializes in treating neurological and orthopedic conditions affecting children and adults. We provide intensive one-on-one sessions, education, training, treatment techniques to empower our patients each day with the skills needed for full recovery while teaching them how to self-manage their health at home. At Crawl Walk Jump Run Therapy Clinic In Clinton Township, we strive to help improve your overall quality of life and change it completely!

If you or a loved one is interested in learning more about desensitization please call us today at 586-323-2957 to schedule a FREE OT screening!

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