Caleb and the Public Bathroom Dilemma

I just read a very revealing blog by Lisa Quinonez-Fontanaz at www.atypcialfamilia.com about taking her 9 year-old son with autism to the ladies’ room.  I tried several times to comment on her blog but with my limited tech skills, my response wouldn’t post so I’m going to tackle the subject here and hope that she sees it at some point.  I praise her for bringing a very difficult subject to light.

I have been taking Caleb with me to the ladies’ room his entire life.  Since I became a single mom a few years ago, I’ve had to do this all the time.  This will not end for the rest of his life.  Caleb is six feet tall and I know he must shock women when we walk in, but we don’t have a choice.  At all.

In addition to autism, which alone could make a solo trip to the men’s room difficult, Caleb needs help dressing and undressing.  He can’t tell if someone before him has peed all over the seat and not bothered to clean up after themselves and he would sit right on it.  He’s missing part of his immune system, so exposure to bodily fluids could create a huge medical problem for him.  Caleb has fallen on a wet floor before and broken the braces off his teeth.  Other falls have resulted in broken bones. Further, while I believe the vast majority of people are kind and helpful, there is always the chance that someone in a men’s room could take advantage of Caleb and there is no scenario where I would think of subjecting him to that.  On a lesser note, pre-teen and teenage boys have laughed and pointed at Caleb on many occasions but I have been able to protect him by removing him from those situations.  He would be unforgivably vulnerable entering a men’s room by himself, and he wouldn’t be able to communicate to me if anything untoward happened.

It would take too long to communicate this every time we walk into a women’s bathroom so I simply look straight ahead and guide Caleb to a stall (usually the small ones because someone always feels entitled to use the handicapped stall).  I speak in modulated tones as I accompany him into the stall, hoping to give the others a clue to our situation by saying, “Okay, buddy, you’re all set.  Let me know when you’re done.”  In that tiny space, I turn around to give him as much privacy as possible in that tiny space.  When we exit, I hold his hand and help him wash his hands and get paper towels or use those awful air-dryers that scare him as much as the vacuum at our home.

Since Caleb was a young boy I have mastered the art of avoiding all eye contact with the public, to the point where friends have to walk up and grab me to get me to notice them.  My friends are awesome and they understand why I do this.  But I have had people actually follow me through a grocery store, hoping to let me see their grimaces.  I just ignore them and we go about our shopping.  Caleb has an extremely high voice and we get lots of stares for that too, but we just push on.  He has mostly given up the hand-flapping that so many kids with autism employ, but he still rocks vigorously back and forth and that gets the starers and whisperers going.

Whenever an establishment has a family bathroom, I seek out and thank them for providing this accommodation.  Those bathrooms don’t just apply to kids like Caleb—they help anyone who needs help in the restroom, of any age and gender.  I don’t begrudge the young moms with three kids in tow who go in there—I’m sure it’s an easy way to corral them and keep everyone safe.  It would be wonderful if more places had these rooms, but for now I will take Caleb into every women’s room, despite the glares, whispers, outright laughter and the comments they don’t think I hear.

When I really think about it, I don’t understand the big deal.  Except for the occasional woman who thinks locking the stall door is an option (always a fun surprise for both of us), womens’ bathrooms are very private where they need to be.  There are no exposed stalls and the only contact anyone would have with Caleb is at the sink.  He has been fully trained in proper decorum in the bathroom and doesn’t speak to or make contact with anyone.  If they look just a little bit closer it’s very easy to see that Caleb has significant special needs.

If I didn’t have Caleb, would I be one of those women who stared aghast at someone bringing in an adult with special needs?  I don’t know, but I would hope not.  I would hope I would show some compassion and just go about my business and leave.  I hope I would realize that no one would bring a male into the women’s bathroom unless they absolutely had to.  I hope I would look with kindness on the mother and child and not add to the enormous stress they must be facing by having to enter the women’s room.

I hope that attitude soon eclipses the one where people are cruel and condescending.

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