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Public restrooms can be a challenging place for children with autism and their parents. Crowds, loud dryers, and automatic toilet flushing can be upsetting for children with sensory sensitivity. Fear of public toilets can turn errands, family outings, and even school into stressful situations for parents and kids alike.
Many parents on MyAutismTeam report that the noise from automatic hand dryers and toilet flushing can be very upsetting for their children. “She used to scream when we used a public toilet,” one mom wrote. “She hated the toilets flushing, and public toilets are so loud.” Another parent agreed, “My son is very noise sensitive, and is terrified of automated hand dryers, or even loud air conditioners, so public toilets are scary places for him.”
Parents on MyAutismTeam report meltdowns, accidents, and other challenges when their child with autism can’t use a public toilet. These incidents can take a heavy emotional toll on parents and children. “I’m feeling very tired and stressed today,” one parent vented when sharing her daughter’s toilet troubles. Another parent facing similar difficulties with her son empathized with his fears, “I couldn't imagine being a few feet tall with sensory issues and being asked to face a toilet that'll whirl and spray me at any moment. I'd be anxious too!”
Some parents are able to manage public restroom fears by identifying traditional flush public toilets, using diapers or pull-ups, or limiting the duration of activities away from home. These coping mechanisms become more challenging when children with autism go to school.
“When [my son] started school, he would not use the toilets,” one parent shared. “He’d hold it all day until he came home, or he'd wet his pants.” Thankfully, this parent and child benefitted from a supportive school administration and helpful occupational therapist. “His OT worked with him at school and put together a photo 'social story' of his toilet at home and the school toilets, and [the school] allowed him to use an adult toilet by the library that is usually locked. They even put in the same scented candle that he has at home to make it as close [to home] sensory-wise. I was blown away by how great they were.”
Some MyAutismTeam parents spend the entire summer before a new school year preparing their child to use a public toilet. “After practicing all summer with multiple trips to the mall and museum weekly, I’m excited to say she finally used the potty at the science spectrum today!!” one mom announced. “She and I were SO proud of the achievement we went and celebrated at a donut shop and ate tons of donuts 😋😄. This is HUGE because school starts in less than a month and I was told the school underwent major renovations and upgrades which meant they may have replaced the old toilets with new automatic ones.”
This mom credits social stories, close communication with a board-certified behavioral analyst, rewards for every act of progress, and incremental steps with her and her daughter’s success.
Parents on MyAutismTeam who have weathered the public toilet storm encourage others to persevere. “Before therapy, I couldn't even flush a public toilet because the sound would send [my son] into a melt-down. Look at him now!” one mom rejoiced. “IT DOES GET BETTER!”
On MyAutismTeam, the social network and online support group for those living with and caring for someone with autism, members talk about a range of personal experiences and struggles. Fear of public toilets is one of the most discussed topics.
Here are some conversations about fear of public toilets:
“Today we were at a place where the toilet is one of those that has sensors. [My daughter] completely refused to go inside when she saw it and had an accident soon after because she couldn’t hold it in anymore.”
Is your child afraid of public toilets? How do you handle challenges around public bathrooms? Share your experiences in the comments below or on MyAutismTeam.