What is your relationship with public toilets? I am guessing it is an arm's length one. Even if your bowels are a chamber of horrors, or you were born with the bladder of a tiny dormouse, I imagine it is not a place you hurry to - except, you know, when you need to go. "Public toilet" should be an oxymoron, but in the words of that famous piece of children's literature, Everybody Poos (and pees), and it sometimes necessary to leave one's house. Left to my own devices, a rigorous 'wee before you flee' regime and routine partial dehydration seems an entirely reasonable price to pay for avoiding them.
Reading those words may have brought to mind the acidic, sulphurous reek, the shrill cacophany of hand dryers, hard surfaces slick with bacteria, the privation of empty toilet rolls and unfilled soap dispensers, harsh light and taps spurting gushes of icy or scalding water. In this environment, in the proximate presence of strangers, we are required to...ease ourselves. I have had time to dwell on these places, because Spike's current special interest is hand dryers. If the figure of a trainspotter and his enthusiasm for cataloguing the nation's rolling stock is mysterious and unknowable to you, I suspect the hand dryer enthusiast will strike you as even more enigmatic. There are more of them than you might think.
What is a "special interest"? The "special" qualifier typically invokes an internal "eww" response in me. It sounds patronising. The term "special needs" also feel inaccurate. There is nothing "special" about my son's needs. They are specific, but mundane - the opposite of special. He needs support to go about the ordinary stuff of life. If he required a red carpet, a legion of palm frond wielders, or a fanfare to herald his arrival at school each morning, that would be "special". But I'm happy to let "special interest" go. They are special - not in the condescending sense of a verbal head-pat but, as the dictionary defines the word: "better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual".
The "special interest" is probably more worthy of its place within the autistic stereotype than, say, true savant skills which are rare. Special interests are intense. This is what sets them apart from hobbies. Beyond that, they can be many things - long-lived or short, narrow or broad. Professionals might say they can be other things: age-appropriate or not; socially acceptable, or not. Some parents, teachers or other onlookers might call them "obsessions" but while a special interest may develop into an obsession, fuelled by anxiety and the typical autistic coping strategies of rigid thinking and repetition, that is not the essence of them.
My son's special interests are like a light inside of him. They sustain, educate and soothe him. I have written before about his love of trains and buses, and how they flung the doors of his city open, and gave us another way to be with him. But the bell curve of intensity began to droop on his interest in buses when he had to cope with the constant reallocation of routes between bus operating companies, and the coming into and out of service of bus models. What at first appeared to him to be a steadfast urban system on which he could rely, has since proved itself to be fickle and changeable. I do not know whether it is coincidental, or in anyway causative, that the period during which he was not on the ascending arc of the special interest bell curve also coincided with a difficult time for him.
Right now, he has what I would term a minor special interest in hand dryers. It is not as full-blooded as trains or buses were, but it is certainly intense and something that he devotes a lot of mental energy towards. To a lesser extent, his special interest also embraces other items you would find in the Screwfix catalogue under Home/Bathrooms & Kitchens/Commercial: soap dispensers, basins, air freshener dispensers, that kind of thing. So, I spend more time than I care for striding towards those facilities marked by the archetypal binary pictograms of a man and a woman, led by my son. (In a happy special interest crossover, these now generic icons were originally designed by Design Research Unit for British Rail, as part of an overhaul of their corporate identity.)
The fascination with hand dryers did not pop up out of nowhere. There is a natural evolution. It can, though, surprise those who know that he used to hate them. As a young boy, there was a time when he was not terrified of hand dryers. We could use public toilets without incident. I suspect he had not connected the intermittent roar with the inconspicuous box on the wall. Over time, his fear of them became more pronounced until it was more or less impossible to use bathrooms which contained them, with all the urgent panic and bodily inconvenience that entails. There is a particular agony to the bubbling panic felt by a parent in urban terrain, clutching the hand of a child who is desperate to wee, but who will not enter the toilet that is right there in front of you. You might say, let them wee behind a car, or in an alley, but there is a point - an age - where that is socially unacceptable (without additional context). In time, we developed strategies to limit toilet drama - wee before you flee, portable vessels, a mental map of London's dryerless bathrooms.
It is the noise that bothers him, obviously. While the on-going battle between hand dryers and paper towels is fought in such theatres of war as hygiene and ecological impact with uncertain outcomes, what is undeniable is that hand dryers, particularly certain models, are incredibly loud. Nowhere was this more apparent than at train station public toilets.
“As soon as volume exceeds 80dB, blood pressure rises. The stomach and intestine operate more slowly, the pupils become larger, and the skin gets paler – no matter whether the noise is found pleasant or disruptive, or is not even consciously perceived… Unconsciously we always react to noise like Stone Age beings. At that time a loud noise almost always signified danger...”
Joachim-Ernst Berendt, The Third Ear, 1985.
Here, serried ranks of these technological wind boxes blast their keening roar at harried, damp-handed commuters. A small bathroom containing a single dryer may as well have contained an angry, fire-breathing monster - our son would wrench himself away from us and this source of danger. But, oddly, large station facilities with their drying machine multitudes stopped him in his tracks. Whether it was incredulity that such a thing could be allowed to happen, or a sort of paralysis, I don't know. But as time went by, he would creep nearer, his arm held out to keep me at bay, as if I might suddenly pick him up under my arm, like a rolled up carpet and thrust him in there.
We have seen it before, this thin threshold between fear and fascination and I think we all know it, to some extent. Whether it is taking a second look at the preposterously large house spider, considering its options in the tide lines of dust at the foot of the skirting, or the gritty pleasure of a well-crafted true crime series. Teetering there, he made tentative forays across the fear threshold into public toilets and embarked on a phase which you might call "know your enemy".
He systemised. Hand dryers were studied at increasingly close quarters, their makes and models noted, their appearance scrutinised and locations analysed, an approach well-honed on trains and buses over the last few years. He supplemented his in situ investigations with YouTube videos demonstrating the drying performance of various dryer units. He drew detailed diagrams of hand dryers and fantasy bathrooms with desirable layouts.
Eventually, the day came when he challenged himself to bring a known quiet model (an Airdri Quad) to life with his own hands. "Let's give it a try!", he said. It goes without saying that we all felt enormous pride at his achievement. Once he was able to tolerate using public bathrooms with hand dryers, it was not important to me that he was able to use a hand dryer, but it was important to him and he found his own way there. We facilitated and encouraged but, as with so many things, when he is intrinsically motivated, he flies.
There is a lightness to our travels, now we know we will not be caught short. There is a quid pro quo for all this; we do spend a lot of time in public toilets. As he makes a beeline for the loos, I jog after him weighing up the social discomfort of having a boy that, to a stranger's eye, is on the brink of being too old to use a female toilet, versus the maternal anxiety of waiting for him to use the male toilet alone, shifting impatiently from one foot to the other, primed to stride in there with eyes averted: "Sorry! I'm looking for my son!". He has not wholly mastered the etiquette and complex social dance that we perform in these public-private spaces, and he is vulnerable, so it is not a comfortable feeling, letting him march off without me. I think it is a good stretch, though. He is nearly there, and these visits create a plethora of teachable moments that we cannot replicate at the table.
While I wrestle with my mental black light, illuminating imaginary fluorescent trails of writhing E.Coli and staphylococcus, I remind myself that this particular special interest has directly resulted in my son developing a good hand-washing habit, it has sparked a step forward in his independence and the feeling of pride that goes along with that. Importantly, it also means I no longer have jars of wee in my bag.
The longer I live alongside my son and his special interests, the more I think that they are something greater than an intense hobby. There is something about their subject matter that I can't quite put my finger on, a kind of ubiquity and a same-but-differentness (surely there is a less clumsy word for this in German?). High street logos, trains, buses, even hand dryers: they form a sort of urban topology, a way into the thrumming, heaving city. Each is familiar, but is permitted a small amount of acceptable variation. A good stretch. Within each interest there is also a journey from the generic to the specific, from the elementary to the complex, from unknowing to knowing. First there is "a train", but eventually there is a Bombardier Aventra 4-car Class 710 with London Overground livery and moquette by Wallace Sewell. Even as he moves from one special interest to the next, the discarded interest remains a safe and positive place to which he can return. Each passion lights a candle in the gloom of the world's dark chaos.
Want to read more? My husband’s lyrical piece on a similar theme.