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When at a restaurant in Quebec, I went to use the bathroom and it suddenly occurred to me that the signs were in French . Luckily I speak French, and so I know the difference between femmes and garçons and could easily navigate which bathroom to use. But it got me thinking: had my two children with autism been confronted with signs in another language, they wouldn’t have known which door to choose. Sometimes even something as small as not knowing which washroom to use can create panic and confusion for those on the spectrum. So how do we teach the symbols for toilet, which one to use if you’re male or female, and general washroom etiquette to our children with autism?
After doing some searching, I did find a good page filled with different symbols for the washrooms. While this doesn’t cover all of it because there is a vast, creative, array of toilet symbols, it’s at least a starting point to let a person with ASD know there is a variety of toilet signs and they can change from place to place. Restaurants tend to be the most creative with their bathroom signs, so when at a new restaurant, it would be a good idea to accompany the person with ASD even if they are independent with toileting. There will also be symbol differences between countries and languages. If planning a trip to another country, you may want to review the toilet symbols before you go to create some predictability and lessen anxiety.
Some people with noise sensitivities find air hand dryers too loud and won’t use them. Many washrooms have the paper towel option but if they don’t, you can always use some toilet paper for drying. Carrying hand sanitizer can also be a good idea to use in a pinch if the bathroom is out of soap or if you’re using more rustic outdoor facilities in the wilderness that don’t have running water.
Don’t look through the gap in the stall doors to see if it’s empty; look underneath towards the bottom of the toilet to see if there are feet. Some stalls have doors down to the floor so you can’t see underneath, but there may a red colour displayed by the lock when busy or a sign that says occupied (like in an airplane). If none of these are evident, give a gentle push on the door to see if the stall is vacant. Once in the stall, no talking to the person next to you. For girls, it’s OK to talk if the other person is a friend or parent. When in the stall, be sure and lock the door so others know it’s occupied. Once out of the stall, don’t talk about what you did in there. Avoid commenting to other people about their smell or noises when they come out of their stall.
When using bathroom stalls, it’s a good idea to check and make sure there is toilet paper first. Look at the cleanliness of the seat – it may need a pre-wipe with toilet paper, require use of a toilet seat cover (some places have dispensers in the wall), or the hover technique where you don’t actually sit down. For girls, teach where feminine products go in the stall and remember never to flush them down the toilet. Before opening the door and leaving the stall, pull pants up, check that the flush was successful and that all toilet paper made it into the toilet. Again, there is great variance with toilets and where the flush handle is located. Some have the dual button flush option that you select depending on if you did #1 or #2. Some toilets have motion sensors and don’t require flushing. Others you may have to hold down the handle for a few seconds. I was in a washroom in the UK last fall that had the old pull chain. And…all of these toilets may sound different when you flush them. You may want to discuss these different flushing options and sounds if you think these variances may cause problems. If flying for the first time or you need to review how to use airplane bathrooms, there is a good You Tube video about it from Emirates Air.
I learned this a few years ago from one of our regular conference speakers and author of The Hidden Curriculum, Brenda Smith Myles. Boys have to be taught not to pull their pants all the way down when at a urinal; just unzip the fly of the pants, take out the penis, urinate, then put it back in the pants, then zip up. Our son still can’t do this so we have taught him to use a stall at all times. If using the urinal, teach which one to use because using the one next to someone else when all others are empty gives the wrong message. Here is a good visual chart of which urinal to use in a line of them based on who’s where. There are also a few other helpful hints on this chart like no looking, loud farting, using a cell phone, or chatting to people in the bathroom.
One of the best websites out there for everything you need to know about bathroom etiquette is the International Center for Bathroom Etiquette. They have urinal etiquette, special situations, bathroom customs of different countries, home/work locations, and they even have a blog! Very informative, I must say.
Teaching the toileting hidden curriculum is a must for people with ASD. Not knowing these unspoken rules can lead to trouble, and create potentially dangerous situations. Successful independence starts with knowing the rules and expectations of society in order to function well and fit in.
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