By Jennifer Jones
As I was trying to convince my daughter, Casey, to take her finger out of her ear and wash both hands, the middle stall door opened and a young girl of about nine came out. She took one look at my 5’9” adult son, Rob, rocking and humming by the restroom door and got a scared look on her face.
“It’s ok sweetie—he’s with me. He can’t go into a bathroom by himself,” I tried to explain over his humming. “Buddy, come here so she can wash her hands.” My son came right to me, but he wasn’t happy. The little girl darted out and I felt like crying. My daughter finally finished washing her hands and we could leave the bathroom—only to be confronted by the little girl, her angry father and a mall security guard.
“What the hell was that guy doing in the bathroom with my daughter?” the father yelled at me. His yelling upset my kids even more. Rob really started rocking back and forth and Casey began to giggle her nervous giggle.
“They both have autism—he can’t go into a bathroom by himself, unless he’s the only person in there,” I tried to explain. The father didn’t want to hear it—he was pointedly looking at my kids with anger and they both felt it. I knew I only had a few seconds before this bad situation got even worse and one of them had a meltdown or started yelling anxiety noises. I looked at the security guard and explained that public restrooms are too loud for them—their ears are super sensitive to sounds.
“He can’t go in to a restroom if I can’t stand outside the door and know he is safe. He was in the stall—she didn’t see anything he was doing and he didn’t see her.” I could feel sweat running down my back and tears were coming. Why in the world had I even brought the kids to the store? I just wanted to go home, have a good cry and forget about autism for a while.
Thankfully, the security guard pulled the man away and we could pay for our things and leave. Once we got in the car and the music started, both Casey and Rob settled down. I was still fighting tears and was so tired. So darn tired. A day that had started out being so much fun, with shopping and laughing, was completely ruined. The hardest part was that I knew that it would happen again—and again—and again.
When women see a cute little boy in the restroom with his mom, they don’t think anything about it. When they see an adult man, they panic. I completely understand this—I really do, but one look at my son and anyone would know something is different. He won’t make eye contact with people and his is often humming quietly to himself. Maybe they wouldn’t recognize his behaviors as autism, but they would know something was off.
By now, I have memorized every store we frequent that has either single stall bathrooms (he can go in those alone—with me standing guard outside the door) or family restrooms where I can take both of them. Rob is capable of using the restroom on his own—but what if he needed help? Barging into a men’s restroom is not something I want to do, but I would if I had to. Most of the time it’s so much easier to just avoid the situation.
It’s scary for to me to let him go into a restroom full of strangers. Maybe I’m an overprotective mom, but the thought of what could happen—and that my son can’t effectively communicate if something did happen—is enough to make me not take any chances. My children’s safety is always my top priority. I’m sorry if we startle other people, but the truth is I don’t really know what else to do.
Our family time is often defined by their autism. When we plan outings, I need to consider the crowds (neither of them can handle crowds), the noises (certain noises are extremely painful for them), the foods (he has food sensitivities and is very picky), what activities they might enjoy (she will try anything—he won’t) and what restrooms are available for us. Sometimes, it seems easier to stay home and avoid the stares.
This isn’t just a problem for us, but one that affects thousands of other families on a daily basis. There simply aren’t enough family restrooms—or restrooms with changing areas for adults—available.
I want my kids to experience the world, even if the world isn’t always ready for us. Life with autism is easier now that they are older, but some issues just won’t go away. I hate for my adult son Rob to feel embarrassed—he knows he isn’t supposed to go into the ladies room. He doesn’t want to be there. His actions show how he feels, even if he can’t say the words.
So I’ll keep trying to assure him that it’s okay to be in the women’s bathroom as long as he is in there with me. I’ll remind him to wash his hands and wait for us by the door. I’ll try to explain to others as I fight my tears at their cruel words. I’ll stand tall as I face down criticism, even as I want to sneak away from the glares. I’ll save my tears for another time, when I know Casey and Rob can’t see them, so they never think that they are the reason why I’m sad.
And I’ll hold out hope that some day soon an encounter in a restroom will be met with compassion rather than anger.
Jen Jones is the mom of two adults with autism and is passionate about helping other families live, laugh and love autism.
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