Calls for retailers to show consideration for face mask exemption
Scottish Autism has called on retailers, their staff and the general public to show more understanding and consideration towards autistic people and those unable to wear a face mask when adhering to Scottish Government guidance around the enforcement of wearing a face mask.
The Scottish Government announced that the wearing of face masks would be made mandatory on public transport from 22 June and mandatory in shops from 10 July. However, there are many autistic people or those with a disability or health condition, where wearing a face mask would cause them severe distress and anxiety and are therefore exempt from the new Scottish Government rules. There are various reasons why an autistic person might find wearing a face mask distressing which includes the sensory experience of wearing the mask and the feeling it has on their skin and also a sudden change to their normal routine which can cause anxiety.
During the early stages of the Covid-19 lockdown, Scottish Autism launched the Covid-19 Autism Alert card to enable autistic people to inform Police Scotland of their diagnosis, especially if they were required to travel further from home to exercise to support their well-being. When mandatory face mask rules were introduced on public transport and in shops, Autism Alert cardholders could display their card as a means of proving they qualified for the exemption.
However, worryingly, Scottish Autism says it has been inundated with messages on social media and calls to their autism advice line from autistic individuals and their families who claim they have been refused entry, intimidated and, in some cases, physically abused for not having their faces covered despite explaining their situation and, in some cases, even while displaying their Autism Alert card.
An autistic adult Dr Ian Garbutt, was subjected to unacceptable verbal and physical abuse by security staff at a shopping centre in Stirling for not wearing a face mask, although he had clearly displayed his Autism Alert card that stated his exemption and also wore a Sunflower Lanyard. This caused Dr Garbutt and his partner extreme distress at this appalling situation. In light of this incident the Thistle Centre are now seeking training from Scottish Autism so centre staff are more aware and welcoming to autistic people and their families.
According to several posts on Scottish Autism's Facebook page, some retailers are taking a hard line and barring entry to autistic customers. One woman posted that her local supermarket was ‘refusing to let anybody in without a mask regardless if you have a medical reason.’ Another autistic individual posted that they were informed by a popular high street clothing retailer that the company has a blanket policy in Scotland regarding face masks and ‘that absolutely everyone has to wear one.’
Others contacting Scottish Autism’s social media channels have highlighted the general distress that some autistic people encounter when having to wear a mask. ‘I really struggled to wear a mask today, I felt like I was having a panic attack and couldn’t breathe, it took me over half an hour to drive home,’ said one post. Another, posting on behalf of their nine year old grandson, said: ‘he will not wear a mask; we have bought all different ones even his football club and he is full of anxiety wearing it.’
Scottish Autism Deputy CEO Charlene Tait said: “It is deeply concerning to me that we are hearing from the autistic community that they are being subjected to abuse or harassment for not wearing face masks. Autistic people and their families, or anyone who is legitimately exempt should never face intimidation or abuse for not wearing a face mask and as a society we need to be more mindful, tolerant and considerate of others.
“There are clear exemptions in place for autistic people and those who are unable to wear a face mask in shops and on public transport due to the distress and anxiety this can cause for them. The Autism Alert card, endorsed by both the Scottish Government and Police Scotland, can be clearly displayed to show this exemption.
“We are therefore calling for retailers, their staff and also the general public to follow the Scottish Government guidelines and wear a face mask, but to be aware that some disabilities are hidden and to take a considerate approach to those not able to wear one.”