Hot Air Hand Dryers And Radar Keys: the challenge of public toilets

001I remember thinking when Dylan was born that having a male child might present some practical issues for a single mother. I couldn’t have guessed how significant these would turn out to be; having a disabled male child, especially one with continuing personal care needs, raises a number of challenges, one of which is public toileting.

Because of Dylan’s lack of  awareness of the social rules governing public space he can’t go alone to the toilet. Dylan would be far too vulnerable; he is a sociable young man who would be likely to approach a stranger to shake their hand or squeeze them by the arm. I have seen men retreat in surprise from Dylan doing this in the street; imagine the reaction of a man approached this way in a public toilet.

As the urinal is unfamiliar to a young man brought up in a female household, in a public toilet facility Dylan always heads for a cubicle. Although this is useful in that it provides privacy, Dylan has no awareness of what is an appropriate amount of time to spend in the cubicle; I have frequently had to climb over or squeeze under bolted toilet doors to retrieve him. And, once out, Dylan always has to be prompted to wash hands. This, I think, is the result of years of extreme anxiety about hot air hand dryers.  I used to dread someone using the hand dyer while we were in a cubicle and have shouted through the door at members of the public using the sink:  please don’t start drying your hands just yet. Dylan copes much better with hot air dryers now, though he still washes one hand at a time with the free arm clamped across his head, covering his ears.

Members of the public are generally very understanding of the way Dylan interacts with public space but toilets are a particular space and are often the area where people can feel uncomfortable or threatened. While for the public this private space is also generally a silent space, for Dylan it is one of the places he is most vocal. Dylan has his own version of ‘singing’ which he does with gusto and at high volume, punctuated with laughter and shouting, while in the toilet. For a young man who doesn’t speak and isn’t very verbal, I find it interesting that the place he feels most free and able to vocalise is a place where many of us feel most vulnerable.

The ‘challenges’ I’m raising here are around social rules rather than personal hygiene, about which Dylan is fastidious. If someone had told me when I was struggling to get Dylan out of nappies when he was five years old, and facing some pretty challenging situations, that we would be where we are today, I would have been astonished.  Many of the issues I identify here seem to involve Dylan’s sensory experience which makes me wonder whether the difficulties I experienced while Dylan was toilet training were due to sensory discomfort. Perhaps for some autistic toddlers wearing a nappy is a particularly unpleasant experience.  With hindsight, if I had  my time again I would approach toilet training an autistic child differently and with this in mind.

Today Dylan not only manages himself with dignity, he is gentlemanly in his consideration of me. For just as I can’t let Dylan use the male toilet alone, so I cannot leave him in the street to wait for me to use the Ladies loo;  all of my toilet trips when out in the community are therefore shared experiences.  For these, I have my radar key to thank; in the space and privacy of the disabled toilet Dylan turns his back to me, lowers his eyes, and  covers his ears.

11 thoughts on “Hot Air Hand Dryers And Radar Keys: the challenge of public toilets

  1. I never leave home without a radar key! Haven’t needed to use it for ages, but despite its clunkiness, it’s worth its weight in gold. Obviously I don’t have the gender problem as I need it for an adult daughter, not a son, but I generally can’t take her into a normal toilet cubicle because they’re too small, and it’s hilariously difficult to change someone’s continence pad effectively in a tiny cubicle (I’ve tried). The one advantage of the pad is there’s unlikely to be the same urgency to find a loo, so I can keep looking for somewhere appropriate.

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  2. I really must stop resisting my radar key! I have had some ridiculous situations with the both of us in a regular cubicle – not very dignified 😦 One of my interests in the whole toileting thing is the extent to which it confirms or contradicts the idea that people with autism are ‘impaired’ in relation to socialisation. While quite a lot of my account illustrates the extent to which social convention is meaningless to Dylan, there are other examples of him quite clearly imitating social behaviour (such as sitting rather than standing, because of the lack of male role models in his life). I used to think of Dylan as gender-free, and celebrated his freedom from having been socialised into a specific gender role, but in the last couple of years I’ve observed him showing more awareness of his ‘difference’ from me, and a stronger identification with the men he encounters. For me, toileting is the site where some of this converges as it brings together both the biological and the social. I saw a blog post from an American woman yesterday with anxieties about letting her (non-autistic) son start to use the men’s room on his own – it was quite refreshing to realise that all parents have these worries – and someone on that site suggested that there is a shift to unisex, larger loos in the US as standard in order to address some of these issues around disability/gender/caring/parenting etc

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  3. I read that article too, and really felt for the woman’s problems, but then I thought – hang on a minute – my son grew up in a single parent family with two older sisters and no male role model. Was there ever an issue about public toilets? No. It never occurred to me to worry. I’d just wait for him outside the gents and assume he was getting on fine. I had no anxieties about the situation, so he had no anxieties either. Children, whether autistic or not, ALWAYS pick up on a parent’s anxieties.

    Gender awareness is a whole different area. Massively difficult. It opens up questions like the basic human right to express sexuality, and how do tell if your autistic son/daughter is gay or straight, and how do you protect them from inappropriate advances from people who fancy them, etc etc. Hard enough to get this right when you’re dealing with non-disabled youngsters. Given my daughter’s physical strength and her personality, I think she’d be well able to discourage in no uncertain terms someone who ‘tried it on’ – but what if there’s mutual attraction? How on earth would one deal with that?

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    • Yep. Agree. Both about the anxiety(I am quite an anxious parent I suspect) and the gender awareness. I am 10 years behind you in terms of living with autism and with a son who is quite a young 19, so up to now I’ve only really had to think about protecting Dylan from others, but I can see that this is likely to become more complex in future. What I think I’m observing is that Dylan’s gender awareness is emerging with his biological development, so that he is at last developing a sense of himself as ‘a boy’, with at least some of the things that implies socially, whereas until very recently I don’t think he did. If heterosexuality is as much a social convention as a biological one (and certainly heterosexuality is supported socially) then I can see that could have interesting implications if you are less prone to social convention, or differently socialised. At the moment, though, Dylan is only interested in Peter Pan 🙂

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  4. Hi Liz, this is a moving, sensitive portrayal of Dylan (and in response to your question about the balance between public exposure and Dylan’s dignity, I don’t see an issue here at all). I should imagine that for mothers of younger boys with autism, it is also immensely reassuring. On a different note, I also read the piece by the mother anxious about her (non-autistic) son starting to use the men’s loos. I know lots of mothers who feel similarly, and am quite certain I would be the same if I had boys rather than girls. I have come round to the belief that anxiety is every mother’s perogative! Look forward to your next post.

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    • Thanks Alison – very reassuring. I hope that mothers of younger children with autism would find it helpful. We had a dreadful time when Dylan was still in nappies and I know that for some families this really is an exhausting period. I’m sure I’ll return to it in other posts because the horror of some of it is still burned in my memory – though with a bit of distance I can also see the funny, or at least surreal, side of some of it. Thanks again for you support – much appreciated 🙂

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  5. PS I really like the new-look blog – and am amused by the Adelle theme! But am sorry you have lost that beautiful photo of you both aboard the tandem. Is there any way of bringing it back?!

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  6. I can relate so much to this post. . My son with autism is 8 and we have the same problems on toileting, hand dryers are a no no as they are evil. His words. He has only recently come out of nappies and yes it is very exhausting isn’t it .

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  7. Ah that’s interesting that you have a son who is verbal and can *tell* you that hand dryers are bad! When I’m struggling to understand an extreme reaction of D’s I can sometimes wish he could just tell me. The exhaustion for me with the nappy phase was the ‘smearing’ and the constant vigilance to try and stop D doing this. I was so very worn down by it. And then at the time there was lots of pressure about getting D out of nappies because a particular school which everyone wanted wouldn’t (allegedly) admit pupils who were still in nappies, i.e. the anxiety that if you didn’t get this sorted by 5 your poor child would be put on the less desirable schooling path and be disadvantaged. I know now that this was nonsense but at the time it felt like a real pressure 😦

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  8. Pingback: In Praise Of Groups | Living with Autism

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