This is a little weird to talk about, but in a facebook group someone asked for help understanding why their autistic 5 year old avoided going to the bathroom. The child didn’t say much other than it was “boring.” That resonated with me because I’ve been saying that to my husband for years, and in responding to the question, I finally found the words to articulate my life long weird relationship with the porcelain throne room.
Yes! Going to the toilet is boring! I don’t even try to go with out my phone because focusing the entirety of my attention on just that room and the bodily function I’m preforming is just way too much thinking and feeling and belch. Unfortunately, going quickly and getting it over with as fast as possible really isn’t an option. Why? Transitions.
I like using Newton’s First Law to explain Autistic Inertia: A body at rest stays at rest, and a body in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. In car terms, I’m an automatic driver trying (and failing) to drive a stick shift vehicle. I have heard (I have no idea how to drive a stick shift) that when driving a manual transmission vehicle you have change which gear your car is in based on…..speed? terrain? things, I really have no idea what I’m talking about. But you need different gears for different conditions and you tell the car which to do when. Many autistics struggle “shifting gears” going from one task to another. And while it may not seem like it from a neurotypical (NT for short) perspective, changing from doing something to sitting on the toilet and doing that takes a rough gear shift. And then we have to change back to what we were doing before?! That takes time. More time than probably seems reasonable to those who do not have the same gear shift struggle. Time that is either sensory overwhelming or horribly boring. But we can’t compress that transition time. This leads to avoiding going to the Wiz Palace (Parks and Rec tv show reference) unless the urgent need to pee is overwhelming and unignorable. Because we know we’re going to be in there a long time, and stoping what we’re doing to do that is just not something we want to do. And that’s another area where autistics can struggle.
Interoception is feelings like hunger, pain, and needing to pee. Because of differences in nervous system wiring, this is a sense that many autistics struggle with. Mine is made a bit worse because when I was a little kid, my grandmother told me that my great-grandfather taught himself to “hold it.” Now, she told me this in the context of complaining that now that he was old it had ruined his internal plumbing and he was having issues, but my kid self that that was totally worth it. It was something I had never thought possible, and it sounded really cool to control it. So I taught myself to ignore that body signal. Now as an adult, I do it without thinking. I’ve had an unfortunately large number of UTIs, likely as a result. Or because I don’t drink enough water. Probably both. Before I was put on a diuretic for high blood pressure, I went only once or twice a day. And yes, I stayed on long past when my bladder was empty, even though it was boring (though I always take something with me) and not just because of transition issues.
Bathroom time is a sensory break from the emotional/social demands of the other people living in the house with me. I started spending extra time on the toilet when I was in middle school. I was living with my other set of grandparents, and this set kept Reader’s Digests and other interesting things in a basket to read while there. Plus, I really needed the break, and sitting on the toilet was an accepted excuse for not being out and socially “on,” if that makes sense. The bathroom was a safe space where I wasn’t interrupted and things were not expected of me, and I didn’t get into fights with people. It became a habit of escapism for as long as I could entertain myself with grandparent level reading material. I started spending so much time in the bathroom my grandmother thought I was constipated, and I drank some nasty tasting teas rather than explain that I was hiding. I don’t have the same conflict-avoidance need now as an adult, but it’s still a habit to use the excuse of bodily functions to justify getting a break. I know a lot of NT people do this, too (even my husband).
Oh, and cold toilet seats in the wintertime; that’s another reason why I avoid going to the bathroom. My NT husband has teased me (lovingly) over the almost 14 years of marriage over me avoiding going for one reason or another. I’m really grateful that I now know why and have the words to articulate to him why it’s such an ordeal for me. When I started writing this, I didn’t think I had this much to say about why going to the bathroom is problematic. I hope that this helps NT parents of autistic kids who have the same struggles I do, but don’t have the words yet to explain. Don’t get me started on public bathrooms, that’s a whole other issue. But if you’ve got a kid who struggles with those horrible sensor flusher, I wrote about that here.