Sesame Street video helps kids with autism learn to wear a mask

In a sweet new video, muppet Julia, who has autism, practices wearing a mask with her dad.
/ Source: TODAY

For kids who have autism, wearing a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 can be a challenge.

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind "Sesame Street," is hoping to help through a new collection of videos and resources designed to help children with autism and their families cope with adjusting to life during the coronavirus epidemic.

The collection, released on September 21, stars Julia, the 4-year-old Sesame Street muppet with autism, and helps autistic kids work through difficult concepts like social distancing, disrupted routines and mask wearing.

In a clip about the importance of wearing a mask, Julia engages in a video chat with her dad and shares that although she's excited about going to the park that day, she's worried her mask will bother her ears and tickle her nose.

After Julia's dad encourages her to practice wearing a mask at home, Julia and her stuffed bunny, Fluffster, give it a try, showing kids that practicing something that causes anxiety in advance may be beneficial.

Dr. Kerry Magro, a speaker and author who is on the autism spectrum, says when it comes to helping kids with sensory issues cope with mask wearing, Julia's dad gets it right.

Magro says removing uncertainty for kids with autism is key, adding that showing kids social stories — learning tools designed to help people with autism understand situations and problems and how people deal with them — that talk through the facts and various outcomes can help ease nerves.

"Sensory challenges, after communication difficulties, was my second biggest challenge growing up on the autism spectrum," Magro told TODAY Parents. "I had a hypersensitivity to touch which would have made wearing a mask as a kid nearly impossible."

Magro says through occupational therapy and a wide range of coping strategies accumulated over time, he's learned to manage most of his sensory challenges. But, for families with small children, Magro recommends doing just as Julia does in the Sesame Street clip and practicing with masks.

"Realize it's not a sprint, it's a marathon," said Magro, who also suggests trying a variety of types of masks to see if one works better for your child than others. "Use a visual timer and start off with five minutes and then work your way up. If they are tolerant to it, try adding an additional five minutes the next time around."

Adrian Wood, a TODAY Parenting Team contributor whose 7-year-old son, Amos, has autism, says getting her son to wear a mask has been impossible since the start of the pandemic.

"Mask wearing hangs heavily for a family like ours," said Wood, explaining that Amos is currently attending kindergarten without a mask. "All summer, we tried different masks with cool patterns and we read social stories, but no luck."

Wood says as time has progressed, it's become easier for she and her family to stop taking Amos places rather than press the issue.

Videos like the ones created by Sesame Street may help children like Amos regain some normalcy in areas where their daily lives have been changed drastically.

"As we see the mask mandates continuing, and for good reason, life will be more disrupted," said the North Carolina mom. "Many 'fun' places are saying no to children who can't wear masks. Honestly, I don't blame them for wanting to promote safety, but it's awfully hard to be excluded based on a disability."