Wayfinding, Autism and toilets…

Is it really just an issue for Autistics?

Growing up as an undiagnosed autistic, I had this secret…. the thought of needing to find a bathroom in an unfamiliar environment used to find me with a rising state of anxiety.

When I was a kid, it wasn’t an issue as you have the safety of a parent to be in charge of knowing these things… it started more as a teen when I was out adventuring in the world. Again, not always so bad as generally I was with a group of girls and as we know, most girls visit the facilities together. No, I guess it really became more evident when I started dating. Picture this, I’m going out for dinner with a guy – so already nervous. What will we talk about? Will I like anything that’s on the menu? Next, being an independent woman and meeting him there, I’ve already gone through the panic of getting lost on the way (this is of course pre GPS), will I be able to find a park? will I be able to the actual restaurant? what if I’m early? (what if I’m late? – because I got lost, couldn’t find a park, couldn’t find the restaurant). What if I got the day wrong or the time wrong? (again, pre smart phone so it’s not like a quick text can address this problem)

Ok- I’ve made it there – I didn’t get lost (much), I found a park (took the first one I saw so generally not that close to the actually destination). I’m there, he’s there and we’re seated at a table. I’ve chosen the safe option from the menu (chicken) and hoping to do it’s a fillet and not on the bone. There’s noise in the restaurant – background music and the sounds of other diners so I’m struggling to hear what he’s saying properly. I can hear the volume but not making out half of his words (this is a whole different autism issue for another day). By this time, anxiety is clearly peaking and I need a moment to regroup myself so I look around for the sign pointing the way to the ladies room. Unfortunately, there is no massive flashing neon sign guiding the way.

For some reason, most restaurants don’t seem to like to promote the location of their ‘facilities’. I don’t want to look like an idiot in front of my date so I excuse myself and pluck up the courage to ask someone. Again, small issue as I don’t like approaching people I don’t know and struggle to get the attention of a waiter or bar staff to ask the dreaded question “where is the bathroom please?”

Now, this person doesn’t escort you there – no…. they tend to mumble directions (which you still can’t hear properly due to the background music and the chatter of happy diners) so you look in the direction they are pointing and take the plunge hoping that you don’t get it wrong and end up in the kitchen instead. Let me just say, if this isn’t an overly large restaurant, chances are, the toilets can require a map – down this corridor, round the corner, second door on the left type deal and as I’m walking, picturing everyone looking at me, I’m madly trying to visualise the directions and reminding myself which side is left. (I have an L tattooed on my left hand now and no – it doesn’t always help)

In a a perfect world, once I’ve gotten to this point, I will be presented with 2 doors – one with LADIES and one with MEN so I know which one to choose. The only remaining issues after this being a) how does the door lock? Does it lock in a way that I understand and can see that it’s locked but also that I know how to unlock it and not be stuck there until someone comes to my rescue; b) is there enough toilet paper, will the toilet flush properly, what do I do if it doesn’t flush properly, do I really have to touch the hand of the tap to wash my hands, is there something to dry my hands … and finally c) finding my bloody way back without a map and without ending up in the kitchen.

Now that we have the picture of my now skyrocketed anxiety, lets get back to those doors.

Not all places have their facility doors marked as LADIES and MEN. I remember being in my mid twenties and out for brunch at this pretty cool cafe in St Kilda. It was a visual feast for the eyes and like nothing this Brisbane girl had seen before. Now I’d gone through all of the aforementioned steps (and stress) and found myself (eventually) in front of 2 doors. In hindsight, the door with the picture of the banana is self evident and that the door with the half Pawpaw was the one I needed to choose. I can tell you though that at the time, that was like literally the final straw. I stood there for god knows how long looking at these 2 pieces of fruit and my brain kinda just fried itself. Rather than choose one and possibly get it wrong, I eventually just went back to the table and sat with my legs crossed, unable to focus on any attempt to understand the conversation and dying to escape from my date and find another facility anywhere but there.

Now you might understand why I didn’t date all that much.

Lets fast forward to today… We know that I’m passionate about design, and that I am forging my own way in relation to ‘accessible’ design and what that actually means. Most people correlate the word ‘accessible’ to persons with physical disabilities. If we bring up the subject of design for autism or other conditions such as altzheimers or acquired brain injuries, most people again have a set thought pattern on what that means and what ‘should’ be taken into consideration but I digress.

This weekend, it was my privelge to attend a wedding as my step daughter wed her best friend. It was a beautiful day and wonderful ceremony and went off (for the most part) without a hitch. As with most weddings, there was a certain degree of family drama in the lead up to the big day and it was an exhalation to arrive at the reception venue to celebrate.

True to form, I had scoped out the facilities when i arrived. I could clearly see the location and indeed could see the one door with the sign we all know that has the picture of the female, male and wheelchair and an obvious lock. It was however, so obvious where it was, that I didn’t relish the idea of entering that room within plain sight of everyone present so down the hallway I go in search of the ladies. At the end of the hallway, I’m presented with 2 doors. One that obviously USED to have a sign but has since fallen off and one with a picture on it. I look at this picture of a face. It looks kinda feminine, maybe? Is that mascara on the eyes? Is that lipstick on the lips? It’s in black and white so I can’t tell. The hair could be a ladies style, or a guys.. it’s not like there’s a pony tail. This is a pretty hipster venue and with today’s inclusion of LBGTQ+, I’m thrown back to the day of being presented with the banana and pawpaw.

Legs crossed, I go back to my daughter and her friends and ask the question. She looks at me blankly as this was clearly not a question she expected me to ask. The girls have a consensus that it’s most likely unisex and really I should just pick a door and go. They haven’t read this blog piece so they don’t understand the background to my dilemma. I look around for staff and find the woman in charge and go to her. She also looks at me blankly to start with but 49 years down the track, I’m feeling brave and start to talk to her about wayfinding. She probably looked at me blankly to start with as I opened the conversation with “So, I’m autistic….”

We walked together to the dreaded door with the picture and I filled her in on wayfinding and different ‘disabilities’. When we got there, she looked at this picture in a different light and could now understand my confusion. To them, the door with the picture was female, and she explained that they had put a chair in there for women who are breastfeeding and so for the staff, it made sense that this was for the ladies, and the door that didn’t reveal a chair was for men. I looked at her and blinked – because you know, you would first have to open both doors before deducing that a chair or lack therefore may reveal the correct selection of bathroom.

Having given her a snapshot and short synopsis on wayfinding, this wonderful woman was interested in what I had to say and intends to take on board the issue and look for their own way to make it clearer for others in the future.

I went back to the girls afterwards and told them of my findings… it turns out it wasn’t just the autistic who had been confused but the other girls hadn’t known either.


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