My phone rang from an unknown number a little before lunchtime.
“Hi, it’s Carolina,” said a woman. My brain ran in circles for a minute, trying to figure out who she was. “He’s here crying,” she continued.
It hit me.
“Oh no, why?” I said, as my body went into that instant Mom-autopilot, running through the house for Sam’s shoes and my shoes and where the hell were my keys?!
“Well, he’s doubled up in pain,” she said. “He has to go badly, but he just won’t. He’s too scared.”
Oh, my little Mikey.
He had been in all-day Kindergarten two weeks and two days now, and had not used the bathroom during school once.
This, despite my endless preparations. I told the school months ago about his fear of public bathrooms—the unpredictable flushes and the screaming hand dryers. I got special permission for him to use the single bathroom in the nurse’s office, instead of the loud communal one. Then we had practiced, daily, for weeks in the summer—walk to school, look around, meet whatever staff were there, and use the bathroom.
In all that practice time, Mikey only went once completely on his own, with me standing right outside the door.
And the lead up to that one time was awful—pure panic on his part. Mikey was afraid of the closed door, the aloneness, the noisy toilet, the confusing soap dispenser, the impossible paper towel machine. On top of that, pulling pants up and down was still a motor challenge, and he certainly wasn’t wiping on his own.
Needless to say, I knew this day would come.
Sam and I, that morning, were meeting Sam’s new ABA behavior tech at the house.
“Come on!” I yelled to them, rushing Sam into his stroller. “We’ve got to get to the school!” We jogged the couple blocks over there, and the tech, thank God, walked Sam around in the stroller so I could focus on Mikey.
I ran into the nurse’s office and there, his little body tucked behind a big clumsy desk, was Mikey, his Lego Knights lunchbox unopened in front of him.
He saw me and immediately started to cry in relief.
“Come on, baby,” I said, picking him up and carrying him into the stall. “I’m coming with you.” He sobbed into my shoulder for several minutes, his little five-year-old body clinging on hard.
“I don’t have to go! I don’t! I don’t!” he said. Even with me there, the morning of holding it had been too rough on him, and he needed heavy soothing to come down out of the anxiety-cloud.
“You can do it,” I said, finally helping him onto the toilet. And the poor kid peed for what seemed like a month.
For all of last year ABA worked on public restroom desensitization. Over and over I loaded both kids in and out of their socks and shoes and jackets and carseats, just to spend five minutes in the bathroom at Target, or the mall, or the library. Over and over Mikey earned jelly beans—first just for walking into the bathroom, then for standing a few seconds in the stall, then sitting on a potty, and finally, finally, actually going. This took months—but never really got easier. He learned to go with me bending at awkward angles to hold him up so he could cover his ears—but he never learned to go without me.
Preschool was just three hours, a few days a week, so he always held it.
Kindergarten was a whole new ball game.
In the nurse’s office, I flushed while he covered his ears. Reminded him how to use the soap dispenser. Pulled his paper towels down for him.
And we started our de-sense program over again. Each day, as the kids poured out after school, we would head back in to the nurses’ office, and try, try again.
At home, Mikey was also practicing. He would flush our quiet toilet, and cover his ears as fast as he could. He started getting his own soap and turning the sink on and off himself instead of begging me for help.
“I have to learn for Kindergarten,” he said, looking determined.
Finally, one day, he managed to use the school bathroom alone again, with me standing outside.
“Mommy,” he said walking home, “I want Jestro’s Evil Mobile for going potty by myself.”
This was no jelly bean.
This was a $50 Lego set. A main-Christmas-gift type Lego set. The biggest of the big guns where Mikey was concerned.
But…this was no ordinary desensitization—and I absolutely needed it to work. So we talked, and I wavered, but he negotiated, and we decided if he used the nurse’s bathroom at school three different times, to prove that he was really over his fear, he would earn the set.
Then….Mikey went three times the next day.
None of us could believe it.
And you know what? He has gone every day since then.
The bathroom at school has actually become another “no biggie” for him…another one of those crazy milestones that only an autism parent thinks twice about, and gets to celebrate.
And Jestro’s Evil Mobile—an Lego set for 8-year-olds that 5-year-old Mikey built on his own in two hours—sits on the kitchen table every day. When Mikey comes home from school he stares at it for a while, proud and happy.
It’s possible his face looks a little like mine, watching my delicate boy, and all the colorful, complicated pieces of him that somehow fit together just right.