Many autistic children sense the world very differently from how many parents and teachers expect.

Above, an example of how an autistic child may see a room with a toilet and hand basin in it. A tiled wall, a patterned vinyl floor surface. Would you put your feet on that floor? Could you work out what it was? Could you even reliably find the toilet?

Now let’s add in the ‘smellscape.’ Perhaps air fresheners. Toilet cleaners. Hand soaps. Wee. Poo.

Then, let’s add in the soundscape. Noisy pipes. The jet-engine-like flush. The deafening smash of wee or poo hitting the water, and the terrifying prospect of freezing water splashing up.

Let’s then add in the elements of freezing cold toilet seat, ice cold taps or boiling hot taps, the ice-cold metal of the toilet handle, the taps. The searing rough surface of the hand towel, or the further deafening roar of a hand drying unit perhaps. Then, of course, the pain of dragging clothing down in order to use the toilet.…coping with the complexities of the toilet paper and what to do with it, where to put it. Dragging clothing back up again, like someone using sandpaper against your skin.

Toileting can be the most terrifying experience imaginable for a child whose experience of the world is turned up to ‘max.’

For others, each noise and smell, texture and feeling is a fascination and a puzzle which needs exploring, and they may seek out those experiences over and over, trying desperately to make sense of them.

Some may experience difficulties with balance and co-ordination, or with internal signaling to say they need a loo until it’s too late. Or with the ability to point or signal that they want the loo.

To their credit, many autistic children endure all of this and actually do use the loo, politely, over and over again, and continue to do so for life. No-one questions whether it’s hell, or whether we could design such spaces in ways less exhausting to use. So, let us bear in mind that most autistic children do manage to cope with this ridiculous scenario.

But how easy it is for some adults to misunderstand why an autistic child may avoid using a toilet.  Some children are so desperately afraid of these spaces that they will only wee or poo in a quiet, safe corner. Often on soft material that disguises the noise.

Yet some adults still say, “They’re just animals—they just don’t care—this is deliberate challenging behaviour—we must find ways to force them…” We even have playwrights writing a horrible play which portrays autistic children as animals, using this theme and dehumanising puppets.

Oh my. No.

Always, always presume competence. Presume that the child wants to learn. Always, always show respect and caring. Take good advice from autistic advisers and our allies, who are experienced and expert. Many are parents, many have vivid memories of their own of the challenges of such spaces.

If you are designing such a space, take good advice on that design. Think about minimising the pain and the disorientation.

Instead of assuming that, since it’s OK for you, it must be OK for an autistic child…think differently. Because the solution isn’t the child being forced into that hellish toileting space. Instead, we should be working with the child to find answers to each part of their toileting nightmare. Thinking about making the visual experience understandable. Minimising the smells. Minimising the noise. Using soft towels, soft paper. Using clothing that doesn’t cause terrible pain when it is pulled up or down.

Work together. Learn from one another.

Thank you for listening.

A disorientating digitally altered photo looking down into an empty toilet cubicle.
Photo @ Ann Memmott