Panic in the Public Bathroom

I never thought my next story idea would appear inside of a library bathroom.

Of all the places in the Universe, it’s a pretty random place to find inspiration. I was only there for a tissue, a quick hand-washing, and a one-second glance in the mirror, but in the middle of all that while wiping my hands the tiny laminated sign above the toilet caught my eye.

“If your child is troubled by the automatic flush, please see the circulation desk for a simple solution.”

Nothing was ever simple during the years my son was young. Those routine events that scaffold our every day – meals, outings, trips to the toilet – lucky are those who take for granted the ease and casual nature of these bits and bobs of life.

That little sign above the toilet took me back to a period in life I used to pray was only temporary, way back to a time when entering a bathroom with my young Autistic son – public bathrooms especially – was a complicated, chaotic cluster you-know-what that called for a steely spine, required vigilant observation of other people entering and leaving, the patience to wait for the right timing, and a prayer that nobody would hear the screaming and be concerned enough to call the cops. That and the utter urgency of a bladder full enough to make the dash into that realm of the scary and unpredictable assault on the senses to face my son’s principal antagonist: the public toilet.

I now pause for a moment and ask … What are the things in life that most frighten you? What gets your heart pounding and buckles your knees beneath you? What makes you change your mind and turn back?

If it’s bugs, then you probably skip the picnics and eat indoors. If it’s sharks, you stay close to shore. If you’re afraid of heights, you stay off of ladders. These particular solutions really are simple. And if you ever must do any of these things, you put yourself in those environments and risk exposure and when it’s over you make a mental note to limit the frequency of that particular experience in the future. If you happen to be afraid of the excessively loud swirl-suck, horrific hyper-flush, surge-spastic swooshing monster that is the public toilet, then you’re out of luck. Completely avoiding this inevitability of contemporary human existence is rare.

I bet you never thought about the toilet flush as existential before. But the struggle and the horror is (sur)real. When you think bathroom, you’re supposed to think ka-ka, not Kafka.

With autism comes a complicated set of sensory integration dysfunction, where sometimes fluorescent lights are as blinding as the sun, or perhaps senses are jumbled and colors can be tasted, or any variation of the senses. For my boy, he can hear a bee buzzing seconds before it even comes close enough to be seen. If he would see a dog, he would immediately cover his ears because of the barking and the unpredictable nature of the sudden noises. Now imagine standing or sitting – or squatting – inside the stall of a public bathroom. Footsteps, the sounds of tearing off paper towels, and locks being slid shut and open echoing throughout with random screams of automated hand dryers off and on … and then the seemingly random explosive noise of the flushing toilets from other stalls blasting out like dynamite bouncing off canyon walls sending the blasts back and forth and all around again as you sit helpless in an enclosed space with no immediate escape possible.

That’s the Kafkaesque nature of the public bathroom to the Autistic child. Couple that with the limited understanding of what exactly happens when you flush the toilet, where it goes, and whether it’s powerful enough to suck you in, and you have a dark anxiety-ridden short story straight out of Franz Kafka’s tormented mind.

But the torment was simply unavoidable, and I – the tormentor – had to drag the poor boy with me into public toilets all over the place out of absolute necessity, and it killed me every time.

The boy’s father lives in Canada, and so every now and then we would have to make the drive up there for a visit. I believe I’ve stopped at every single rest stop between Bridgewater and Ottawa, Ontario looking for the least traumatic bathroom ambience, but only ever finding ‘least traumatic,’ never ‘non-traumatic.’ But the boy was just a wee lad and he couldn’t be left alone in the car; it just wasn’t safe. Eight and a half hours of driving – even if two of those hours were without seatbelt in order to mitigate bladder pressure – still calls for at least one pit-stop.

If I was lucky, the entire bathroom would be empty. We avoided those ‘visitor welcome center’ rest stops intentionally. But whether there were others in there or not, there was always screaming. I remember one time when the boy was five. Man, I just had to go. There was no alternative. The rapid walk leading up to the door was an uninhibited screaming and flail-a-thon as I tried to hold onto him gently and reassure him it would be a fast trip in, which turned into begging for him to please just come and hold his hands over his ears until it was over. My preferred stop had one of those separate family bathrooms with only one toilet in it, and he would stand there, his ears covered desperately with his small hands, his face mangled in fear, trembling as he coped with the surging adrenaline in his bloodstream. I would relieve myself with a velocity that could rival any racehorse, and we would rush out of there before that automatic flush had the chance to say anything. A quick stop at the vending machine would usually smooth over the experience like a cartoon character Band-Aid would soothe a skinned knee, and soon we’d be on the road again with the accompanying aromatherapy of a Christmas stocking stuffer mini bottle of hand sanitizer – for there was never any time to use the sink.

When we went to Disney World, to our horror, every single toilet in the park was an automatic flush. With manual public toilet flushes at least there was some small degree of control; automatic flushes had a way of going off whenever they felt like it, literally. If they thought you had gotten up, even if you hadn’t, they would go off. I really think the person who invented those things really was a shameless sadist more interested in scaring the crap out of people (no pun intended) rather than simply attempting to save humanity from toilet germs.

Disney’s visitor services office had no real alternative either, except a sheet of Disney World stickers that we could stick onto the sensor. If Pavlov’s dog was conditioned to adapt to punitive reinforcement and you rang a bell and held out a bone instead of a baseball bat to the face, chances are the poor little dog would still run away and hide.

It just didn’t work that way.

But the only option was to either leave – a non-option – or use the ‘family’ restroom and employ the sticker and the promise of an immediate treat post-trauma.

It did the trick, of course – sort of – but it wasn’t perfect. It required consistent positive outcomes and loads of trust – more trust than one should have to invest in a caretaker.

What finally ended up lessening the degree of the fear was gentle indirect conditioning. We started watching public toilets flushing on YouTube. (Yes, people actually video record toilets flushing and post it to YouTube. You can find anything on YouTube – both a positive and a negative fact for humankind.) We would turn it up loud, or I would randomly play it during the day, only startling him slightly but reinforcing the gradual desensitization. We added a goal to his occupational therapy plan at the therapy center, and soon the boy was enjoying the thrill and anticipation of the loud, scary flush that he himself could control.

Today I’m confident that it’s as close to pain-free as possible for him to go into a public restroom without any permanent damage. And all those times I dragged him in there, God forgive me please, while traumatic and seemingly cruel at the time, have left no obvious scars. And thankfully, no one ever called the cops on me thinking I was torturing or trying to kidnap the boy, although I’ve received my share of disapproving looks from others as we struggled to get through the everyday act of going to the toilet.

And now, now there is courage. A courage in the child that emerged from such a deeply-felt fear that didn’t just cause emotional panic but actual physical pain. Those flushes are loud! And sometimes I’m shocked and flinch at how loud some automatic hand dryers are to someone without audio hypersensitivity.

Oh, and that simple solution at the library? It’s a Post-It note over the sensor. And why didn’t I ever think of that before?

If only there were more little laminated signs along the way to tell us what to do, offer us simple solutions to mitigate the scary, to flush away the fear and make the world an okay place for our kids.

And P.S., Mattapoisett Library – on behalf of all Autistic children, adults, and their parents, thank you. You have no idea how huge that little sign is to us.

This Imperfect Life

By Jean Perry


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