Bright, fluorescent lights. People rushing past in all directions. Water running. Hand dryers blowing. Toilets flushing. Conversations echoing on tile walls and floors. Strange smells in stagnant air. Wet counters. Wet toilet seats. Squeaky metal doors. Rough paper towels. A baby crying on the changing table.
You know that one-seater "Family" bathroom in the corner? It was made for us. Even before Daniel could tell me in words how much he dislikes the public restroom, he was letting me know by crying. I can not tell you how many times I found myself in a public restroom changing his diaper as fast as humanly possible while he screamed at the top of his lungs.
Here's the best possible public restroom trip I can expect when Daniel and I are together:
We encounter the ideal environment:
A rarely-used family restroom with a single toilet and single outside door that locks. Manually flushing toilets. Manual faucet. Manual soap dispenser. Manual paper towel dispenser. Handicapped accessible grab bars by the toilet. A step stool under the sink. No air fresheners. No fan. Smoke detector/alarm is out of sight and/or not blinking. No one comes to the door and tries to open it while we're inside.
Daniel goes first:
I remind him to first pull down his pants and then he points out, "Oh, there's a hold-on-er!" He holds one of the grab bars and hoists himself up to the toilet sideways, then reaching out to me frantically with one free hand so I will squat down and wrap both my arms around his body to provide some sense of stability.
He relieves himself while asking, "Is the toilet going to flush?"
"No," I tell him, "One of us will flush it when we're finished."
"Are you sure?"
Daniel dismounts the toilet. I remind him to pull up his pants. He bolts for the door and begins to unlock it.
"Wait! Daniel, please leave the door closed. I need to go potty now."
"But I want to unlock the door and go. See? This is how the door unlocks..."
"Don't! Please leave the door locked until I'm finished and we can wash our hands. Hey, look! There's a step stool so you can go ahead and wash your hands. Please go wash your hands."
I quickly relieve myself. Daniel climbs up on the stool, turns on the water himself, gets some soap, hastily rubs his hands together and jumps down, running with dripping hands back to the door to unlock it. I am fussing with my maternity pants.
"Daniel, please leave the door closed! Looks like you forgot to dry your hands. Could you go get a paper towel?"
"Is the toilet going to flush?"
"Not until I flush it."
"Are you sure? I think it's going to flush and it's going to be loud and it's going to hurt my ears!"
He frantically clamps both hands over his ears. He then realizes his hands have made his ears wet and begins to get upset about that, "Oh no! Now I'm wet!"
I help him dry off, warn him that I'm about to flush the toilet, and flush it. I wash my hands as he is opening the door, yelling to me to come with him. We leave.
Multiply that by 3-20 stalls and add an extra 1-40 people. Remove a few of the environmental ideals (add anything connected to a motion sensor, for instance) and the difficulty increases exponentially. That is our typical experience.
This commonplace activity—using a toilet away from home—is so often very challenging for Daniel. He has anxiety about it ahead of time, getting through it is tough, and afterward he often needs to verbally process the experience. It also requires a lot of extra reassurance and emotional down-regulation from his caregiver surrounding the restroom event. It's hard.
Public restrooms are just one of the many everyday experiences that are extra difficult for Daniel (and many people with a wide variety of sensory challenges) to navigate. I know it takes a lot for me to keep my patience and ability to help Daniel through the myriad things he doesn't process efficiently; I must remind myself many times a day that my child is not giving me a hard time, he is having a hard time. When I take pause to look at the experience from his perspective, I feel a lot more empathy and less frustration with his various coping behaviors.
Still, every day I wish that things could be a little easier for him. Going to the bathroom shouldn't have to be so scary.