How do the new bathroom laws affect kids with special needs?

How do the new bathroom laws affect kids with special needs?
I’m a mom who lives in suburban Virginia with four sons, a husband, and no pets. Our oldest son is artsy, our second son is fun-loving, our fourth son is very rules conscious, and our third son is both on the autism spectrum and also intellectually impaired.

He’ll be 10 years old in May and, like his big handsome daddy, he’s tall and strapping. Most people think he’s older than he is at first glance, and at second glance, they see his autism behaviors, and clue in, that our little boy, who’s not so little anymore, is functioning on an entirely different wavelength, most often mentally unaware of what is occurring in his immediate surroundings. He has no sense of danger, almost no impulse control, and has to be constantly monitored like most parents stay on top of their toddlers. He is chronologically almost 10, can do first grade math and reading, and is only about 18 months old in a functional maturity level. While in some ways, that’s sweet and endearing, that he will remain forever young and loving, in other ways, that is often very dangerous.

Here in our northern Virginia suburb, we have many pools to which we can go, but at every single facility, in order for us to get inside the pool after signing in, we must walk through either the men’s or ladies’ locker rooms. As an all-boy-mama, when my sons were little, they walked through the ladies’ room with me, and as they grew older, I could teach them about stranger-danger; as they understood how to care for themselves and stay out of danger, they began being able to walk through the locker room of their corresponding genitals.

Not so yet with our 10 year old on the Autism spectrum; my eyes must be on him at all times, every minute of the day, for his own safety – especially out in public. That’s not only from concern over his being the victim of a predator, but more the danger of him eloping and running out onto busy highways, and engaging in all kinds of seriously dangerous behaviors if left unattended. He wears a medical alert bracelet at all times, on which it says, “Autistic/Non-Verbal” and has our phone numbers, because the chance of him eloping is such a constant danger and concern for us.

As he’s gotten older, I dread bringing him into public restrooms with me. Mothers with toddlers bring their sons into public restrooms all the time, and that’s alright. But, with my son we are subjected to exasperated sighs, the glares, the snarky and often vicious comments from other women, about my little boy being “too old to be in the ladies room.”

Usually the insults are directed at me and my poor parenting, but several times, my son, who has severe sensory issues as most people with Autism do, has had women yell right at him, telling him to GET OUT of the ladies room. He covers his ears and just starts screaming, because he is so overwhelmed by the noise echoing off bathroom tiles, and a stranger who is in his face yelling at him.

I have tried to explain to women on numerous occasions that he is very intellectually impaired and that I must accompany him into the bathroom, because he cannot ever be left alone and that it is a safety issue. Some are understanding, but some double down and continue their judgement, loud castigation, and comments about how the presence of my son, at his age, in a ladies room is further proof of the total degradation of society.

It’s come to the point, that when he signs to me in the car that he has to go potty, if I am near a wooded area, which are all around us in Reston thankfully, I will opt to pull over to the side of the road and let him pee outdoors rather than risk the scorn of a stranger in a public restroom. The woods aren’t segregated, and usually free from judgement.

So, our pools, which requires every resident of our town who uses them to walk through a locker room, male or female, have become a problem for my son and me.

I tried, considering that women can be nude in a locker-room, to walk in before he’s going to come running through, to make sure nobody is naked. I even tell women who are standing in the bathroom that I am going to bring a young autistic boy through for a moment to the pool. Most are very understanding and accommodating, but often enough, some are not. One woman last summer said to me, “You will do no such thing!” I tried to explain to her why I needed to stay with him at all times, and she responded, “Well, that’s your problem, maybe you shouldn’t bring him to the pool then!”

In hindsight, I should have left that facility and gone to another one, but being the perpetual rebel that I am, I decided that this women was not going to push my family out of our regular pool. About two hours after we arrived, the dreaded moment came though, when he had to use the restroom, and I walked into the ladies room, made certain nobody was naked, and warned that he was coming in. He ran right into a stall and this woman actually followed me in. I thought she would yell at me, but she went marching directly to the life-guard’s desk and I could hear her very loudly complaining. Would she have preferred that he urinate in the pool, or just that I risked him running out the door on the other side onto a very busy intersection?

When we left the pool, the lifeguard said to me, “Ma’am, would it be possible for one of our male lifeguards to walk your son into the men’s room to get into the pool and use the restroom?”

At the moment, relieved that they seemed to be on my side and trying to help us, and these lifeguards know my family and clearly felt terrible, I agreed that going forward that’s what I’d be willing to do. Later in the evening though, the more I thought of it, I thought about how uniquely unqualified and untrained any of these lifeguards are in taking care of a child as severely impaired as my son and decided when I went back to that pool I would stand my ground gently but very firmly.

No, in fact, it was not okay to leave the care of my severely impaired son to someone who wasn’t qualified to care for him.

Upon our return the next day, I found a sign posted at the desk which read in all capital letters: CHILDREN OVER 6 YEARS OLD MUST USE THE LOCKER-ROOM OF THEIR OWN SEX.

I ripped that sign off the desk and drove straight over to our community association office and said, “If you don’t inform every lifeguard at every pool in Reston, that this is discrimination against the disabled and a violation of federal law, I will have a discrimination lawsuit against the association faster than you can say not happening.”

I don’t know how it was handled specifically, but I do know for the rest of the summer, not a single lifeguard at any other pool attempted to block my access to watch my son in the ladies’ locker room. If he still requires my supervision at age 35 or 65, that’s where I am taking him. I refuse to put my son in jeopardy for someone else’s comfort.

It’s with these experiences though, that I am watching this debate unfold about who gets to use what bathroom. Laws that strictly segregate bathrooms will put my little boy, and he will remain a little boy mentally his whole life, in serious danger if enforced. I see them as the same as that sign at our pool desk, as a direct violation of the Individuals With Disabilities Act of 1990, signed into law by none other than a Republican president.

Anyone, who is caring for a seriously impaired person, who is his/her opposite gender, will also experience hardship from the passage and enforcement of segregated bathroom laws. I often think, when some nasty stranger feels compelled to judge, snark at me, or yell at my son, isn’t our life complicated enough? Perhaps we should instead get some understanding and help instead of dismissal and condemnation.

I’d say the same for what the vast majority of transgender people have endured their entire lives – the dismissal and cruel attacks. What ever happened to live and let live? Must so many people who are different dread something as fundamental as going to pee in a public restroom? Is it more a sign of the degradation of society, that we make exceptions to the rules of segregated restrooms for some people who are different or differently abled, or is the true degradation that the bigotry of some against “other” is so pervasive that we’re reduced now to making laws about where people urinate?

It is crucial to understand that passing strict gender segregation laws not only demeans and endangers our transgender brothers and sisters, but also puts severely disabled people with caretakers of the opposite gender in extreme danger in many cases.

It’s for the safety of people with disabilities and transgender men and women, who are much more likely to face danger when they walk into a restroom which doesn’t seem to visually correspond with their gender, that these laws must not pass. I see this as a life or death issue, not a punchline, not a “distraction issue.” I hope someone doesn’t have to get harmed, assaulted, or killed before the rest of society wakes up to what can happen if these laws are passed and enforced.

It’s not just federal law that public facilities must accommodate my son’s needs, it is also the moral thing to do.

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