6 mins read

Autism and Public Restrooms

At what age is it appropriate for a child to use a public bathroom by themselves?

This question is steered toward a child with special needs. I only have one child and that child has autism. I’ve never raised a typical child, so I’ll stick with what I know.

I’m also directing this question toward an encounter I had with my autistic son.

An incident happened one time regarding the mens locker room at my gym.

Since my son was about eight, he had been taking himself into the menʼs locker room to use the facilities. Typically, we show up at the gym. I would ask him to use the bathroom while I wait outside in the hallway.

When my son is done, he’s goes to the babysitting room. He stays there while I’m working out.

What are some of the issues regarding this incident?

Iʼm a mom with a boy.

I have taken my son with me into womenʼs bathrooms and locker rooms for a large portion of his life. Probably longer than a mom would take a typical child because I felt for a long time that he would get too distracted on his own.

When I recognized that he got too old to go into the womenʼs locker room with me, I begin this new routine.

I am always concerned about the potential for inappropriate behavior.

Because of my fears, I backslid a bit on my policy over the summer when my son and I traveled alone together. There were times I just didn’t feel comfortable letting him go into a public mens bathroom by himself. I had him go with me or I looked for a “family” bathroom.

Are locker rooms different and what happened with this incident?

Of course, locker rooms are different for both men and women. The women at my gym don’t want an older boy inside their locker room.

But, there was an incident that I need to address.

My gym does not provide a “family” (RE: unisex) bathroom. They only have a womens locker room and a mens locker room. That’s all.

On the ride to my gym one morning, a fidget toy with some kind of liquid in it broken and the liquid got all over my son’s hands.

The liquid was blue and I had no idea if it was non-toxic.

By the time we pulled into the gym parking lot, my son was upset. He desperately wanted “the blue stuff” off his hands. I wanted if off, too.

The lack of a unisex bathroom at my gym is a problem for mothers with sons and dads with daughters.

As I went into the gym, I knew I had to help my son clean his hands. I felt I had no option.

I took him into the womens bathroom. We went directly to a sink and focused on cleaning his hands.

As you can guess, the presence of my son created some problems. There were two women in the locker room who did not like having him in there.

They complained to management and management yelled at me.

Which I didn’t mind.

What I minded was the lack of options.

As I mentioned above, I probably took him into a womens locker room with me longer than typical children went in with their mothers. I always tried to take him off to the side bathroom.

Mens locker rooms simply made me too nervous.

My son has autism and, for a long time, I felt he did not understand what is appropriate and what isnʼt.

I would talk to him about it letting him know that if someone ever talked to him in a “bad“ way, he had to tell me or his Daddy or an adult.

I have also talked to him about other people looking at his body in a “bad“ way. I have tried to explain “inappropriate” as best as I could.

Even at age twelve, I’m still not sure that he quite gets is. Perhaps some twelve-year-olds do, but I’m not yet convinced.

Additionally, I also need to make sure that he understands his own appropriate behavior in a menʼs locker room. He has his own responsibilities.

What other issues did this raise?

Where was the unisex bathroom? What was I supposed to do?

The owner of the gym informed me that I could have used their utility closet which has a sink.

How nice of him.

He also said that one of his male employees could have acted as chaperone.

I never knew that, either.

How do I feel about it?

I was wrong to bring an older boy into a womenʼs locker room.

But, I saw no other option.

The wish the women who complained would have talked to me first. Maybe I could have explained why I was bringing in my son. I certainly would have pointed out the lack of a unisex bathroom.

They had a legitimate beef, but there was no proper communication or facilities established.

I guess Iʼd have to say to all the mothers out there who have similar issues with taking their sons to public places, you might want to talk to management to come up with safe and satisfying alternatives.

I regret that I failed to do that.

Maybe I did it because I wasn’t prepared to discuss my son’s autism in that way.

But, I should have.

These situations can be handled in more appropriate ways.

That way, awkward situations can be avoided.

More on Kimberly Kaplan:

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