The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic (better known as COVID-19) has highlighted countless disparities within our health care system, such as the lack of affordable health care available to marginalized communities, improper allocation of resources within our health care system, the general disregard for our elderly and immunocompromised populations and the mistreatment of hospital and frontline workers.
However, one issue that has not been discussed is the complex circumstances of sexual assault survivors and persons with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) during this uncertain time. When going out in public it is generally expected that one will wear some form of PPE (personal protective equipment), often in the form of a face mask or gloves.
This, unfortunately, is not always a viable option for survivors of sexual assault or persons with ASD due to the triggering nature of face masks.
Face masks may be triggering to a sexual assault survivor due to the restriction of air flow. Some survivors may feel forced to remain isolated indoors to prevent retraumatization, while others may not wear a mask at all times or simply not wear a mask at all.
A survivor I had the privilege of speaking with stated: “I choose to forgo wearing a mask and instead practice physical distancing whenever possible when I am out in public because it is more comfortable for me.”
It is unjust to expect survivors to barricade themselves inside of their homes as this isolation would have potentially hazardous mental health repercussions such as an increased potential for depressive episodes and/or suicide attempts.
Also, persons with ASD may be more sensitive to touch and texture due to possible neurology complications. Many persons with ASD experience seizures or have seizure disorders. The partial blockage of an individual’s face may present a safety risk if they have distinctive facial signs before a seizure. Therefore, it is imperative that those who can wear face masks do so whenever possible to decrease the rate of infection and normalize the wearing of PPE in public.
I am of the opinion that collective fear in our society is fueling judgement towards individuals not wearing masks in public. I believe we should all strive to be more cognizant of those that cannot wear masks for a multitude of reasons such as being a survivor, living with ASD, fear of experiencing racial profiling and/or having a loved one who is hearing impaired and needs to read lips.
I believe wearing face masks is not only one’s civic duty but an act of kindness to those in high-risk jobs and a way to show solidarity and respect to survivors and other individuals who are not able to wear them.
Alyson Pinkelman recently graduated from Westminster College, Salt Lake City, with a double major in public health and music studies.