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Surviving Public Bathrooms with a Child with Sensory Issues

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For the parents of a child with sensory needs, a trip to a public restroom is like walking into a minefield. The hand dryers that sounds like jet engines, the automatic flush toilets that are equally as loud, the automatic sinks, the paper towel dispensers…can all make for a very difficult experience. I’m guessing that whoever designed these places did not have a child with sensory issues!

6 Tips to Surviving Public Bathrooms with a Child with Sensory Issues

For parents of children with SPD (sensory processing disorder) or even kids who just have sensory issues, the fear of those gosh-darn-it-just-plain-awful public toilets are enough to have you avoiding outings altogether.

For children who are sensory avoidant (sensory defensive), these bathrooms are a nightmare. With the loud noises, the strong wind that comes out of the hand dryers that literally moves the skin like some kind of futuristic science experiment, the unexpected surprises thanks to so many things being automated, the potpourri of smells, and the glare of the lights, it’s no wonder for them they can be a very scary place.

For children who are sensory seeking, these bathrooms have the opposite effect. They are like a playground of sensory stimulation with their sights and sounds and smells! In these cases, the trips to the bathroom are more of a nightmare for the parents than for the child.

Lucky me (!), I have kids with both types of issues so those trips to restrooms in malls, airports, restaurants, recreation centres, theatres, grocery stores, museums, and other locations are something I used to dread. Over time, I have gathered some tricks and secrets that have made this less of a challenge for our family.

public bathroom tips for children with sensory issues

Here are some tips that I’ve acquired over the years to make these trips to public washrooms a bit more bearable:

Avoid them when possible

This may seem like an obvious solution, but it is a highly effective one. Whenever possible, avoid using the restroom in public buildings. This means not only reminding all of your children to use the washroom before you leave home but also being sure to use it yourself just before leaving. There is no way to ensure that you will never have to use a public restroom, but using the “facilities” at home before going out will at the very least cut back the amount of times you have to face the public ones.

Covering the automatic flush sensor

Carry small stickers or post it notes with you in your purse to cover the automatic flush sensor. This way, your child won’t have to fear the terrible noise going off without warning and can pee in peace!

Familiarity helps

Whenever possible, visit public restrooms that are familiar to you and your child. This will make it easier both because it is familiar and because you can both be better prepared and know what to expect. It’s not always a possibility but if you can always shop at the same grocery store and park near the same entrance to the mall, you can increase the chances that the restrooms will be ones your child is more comfortable with.

Giving them advance warning

Talk to your child ahead of time about what they can expect in a public washroom. Let them know that you will be there with them, supporting them and helping them in any way you can. Encourage them to talk openly with you about which parts you find the most challenging. Address their fears. Brainstorm ideas together for ways to avoid or minimize those challenges.

For sensory seekers, lay out the expectations before you go in. Dayna from Lemon Lime Adventures says that she tells her son that he can only touch things one time. Having expectations such as these laid out beforehand will lessen problems while there. Another suggestion would be for kids to keep their hands in their pockets.

Come prepared

Other than bringing small stickers or post it notes for covering the automatic flush sensors (which are also good for covering the sensors on the taps and hand dryers as well), you can also bring sound dampening earmuffs or noise blocking headphones to keep out the loud and sudden noises that can occur. Even if you are able to cover the sensor on the toilet your child is using, you can’t cover the sensors on the toilets other people are using! Bring hand sanitizer or antibacterial wipes to wash up with so that you can avoid the sink area entirely. This not only allows you to avoid the water, but the powerful dryers as well.

Acknowledge the challenges and give praise

Surviving that minefield is a praise-worthy accomplishment for both you and your kiddo. Acknowledge that you know it wasn’t easy for them and are proud of them for their efforts.

Thankfully, the terror that public washrooms used to hold for my kids is losing its grip as they get older and as they get better skills under their belt for dealing with their sensory needs.

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If you have a child with sensory issues, you may be interested in reading:

Money Saving Sensory Solutions

Must Haves for Kids with Sensory Issues

Create Your Own Anti-Anxiety Kit for Children

Comments

  1. Oh man those places were a nightmare when my daughter was younger. We used to go in and I would cover her ears with my hand while she used the toilet and afterwards when it flushed. Then we would leave and use hand sanitizer. Love the post it idea.

  2. Never thought of it before, but I bet his sensory issues explains why my son avoids the public bathrooms like the plague! Earphones are a great idea!

  3. Another tip for those automatic flushing toilets – if you find yourself without something else to cover it, take a LONG piece of toilet paper and drape it over the top, covering the sensor. It doesn’t work with the wall ones, but lots of them are on the toilets themselves now.

  4. Meganblaire says:

    One of my favorite tips is using the family restroom whenever possible! It really limits the number of triggers you have to try and control {only one toilet, sink, etc}. Plus, they tend to be the least updated, and often have manual sinks and paper towel dispensers {and the child can leave the room before the toilet flushes!}.

  5. This is horrible advice!!!! DO NOT DO THESE THINGS!! public bathrooms are everywhere you go! Your child needs to learn that they are safe! Dont be an enabler by doing all the above, you will just be digging yourself a deeper hole. Expose your child to as many public bathrooms as possible, on a daily basis if possible!!!! Make it something fun, play a game with it, make up a song, or a potty dance. lead BY EXAMPLE! public POTTY IS NOT SCARY!

    • Public bathrooms are certainly not scary to the general population, but to children with sensory processing disorder, it can be a very scary place. I’m certainly not suggesting that all children be sheltered from the regular public bathroom experience, only those who suffer from sensory issues.

    • Natalya, I would suggest you do some research on what it means to have Sensory Processing Disorder. It is a real thing and yes, it makes using public bathrooms terrifying. I have a seven year old daughter who literally cries in fear of the loud noises every time we have to use one. I have never sheltered her from loud noises, but they terrify her non the less. Please do your own research before responding like that again. If you don’t understand the subject fully, if you haven’t experienced it for yourself, then just leave it alone.

    • As a mother of a child with these issues I agree with both sides of this issue. We do not avoid bathrooms but do not use the hand dryers. There is a way to accustom them while still being understanding of their discomfort.

  6. Love the post it idea, would have come in handy when my oldest was smaller. She still dread s the auto-flush but is better at dealing with it.

  7. According to webmd, “Treatment depends on a child’s individual needs. But in general, it involves helping children do better at things they’re not good at and helping them get used to things they can’t tolerate.Treatment for sensory processing problems is called sensory integration. The goal of sensory integration is to challenge a child in a fun, playful way so he or she can learn to respond appropriately and function more normally.” Merry, I do know what its like to get stressed out about a trip to the mall, restaurant, park or the grocery store. A day long trip to a theme park was pretty much out of the question because all these places had bathrooms with automatic flushers. I realized that avoiding these places rather than exposing her to them was only doing more damage. After realizing the impact it would have on her childhood and adult life I started to look for a better approach than avoiding it. How do you tell your child they cant go on a field trip to the zoo with the class because they wont go into the bathroom? I want to help normalize things she has trouble with so that these everyday activities dont impact her psycological and social skills even more as she gets older.

  8. I agree, this is not the best advice.. I am a pediatric occupational therapist and I do understand what SPD is. The child is unable to process the sensory stimuli the same way that you and I do, therefore they tend to go into “fight or flight” mode. It can be very scary/overwhelming for them, BUT they can learn tools to HELP them instead of completely avoiding these bathrooms for the rest of their life. There are many ways to help children, and the one I have found most effective is having the child be in control. When the child is looking at the stimuli, it is easier for the brain to process what they are hearing/seeing. Make it fun at first… let them flush the toilet after sprinkling glitter, droplets of food coloring, sprinkles, etc.. (The child flushes and watches “bye glitter!”) You can still put something over the sensors, BUT you should take them off when the child is ready to flush. (They are still hearing it however it is not a scary surprise). Another idea to work on the blow dryers is to let your child (with your supervision or even helping hold) use a blow dryer to dry stuffed animals. It helps them be in control of the sound in a non threatening way. Hope these help! The key to sensory disorders is to allow the brain a chance to explore in a safe and fun way until it can organize and process the info in a more appropriate way 🙂

  9. Thank your for this article! My son has spd and will go in his pants rather than make use of a restroom with both the dryers (automatic or not) and the automatic toilets. It is quite frustrating having to carry around a change of clothes all the time. (Thankfully, he actually enjoys the magic and power of his little hands to engage the sensor for water faucets and paper towel dispensers!)

    As it is not always possible to “get it all done at home” so that we don’t have to use those noisy and sometimes unpredictable machines, I REALLY appreciate your idea to put a post-it note (or a long ‘train’ of toilet paper, as one commenter suggested) over the toilet sensor.

    This will make both mine and my son’s lives MUCH simpler and happier!

    BTW – I do agree with sensory integration, but, as others said, at the child’s own pace.

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