Hand Dryers and Autism

I love the Dyson Airblade. I think a hand dryer in a public washroom that can dry my hands as quickly and completely as an Airblade is one sign that we live in the best of all possible times.

I own a Dyson vacuum cleaner and I think it is quite possibly the most wonderful thing I have ever bought. When I first heard about the Airblade, I knew it was going to make me hate any hand dryer I  had used before even more. The Airblade was going to be hand dryer bliss.

With the Airblade it really was love at first sight. I should have been creeped out by watching my skin blown around like the cheeks of an astronaut in a centrifuge. Instead, I just loved it more.

Since first using an Airblade, I have noticed electric hand dryers have generally improved and become much more common in public washrooms and that poses a bit of a problem.

I understand why more and more public washrooms are being equipped with them and paper towels dispensers are not being refilled.

First, it must be cheaper than buying all those paper towels and paying for space to store them. Then there’s the cost of paying staff to restock the washrooms and empty trash. Fewer tasks to pay someone to do. I don’t even want to think about how often staff have to mop up after some (insert favourite bad name here) has decided to clog a toilet with paper towels.

I have to imagine that hand dryers have been improved to use less electricity, which must make them cheaper to use. They certainly seem to be more reliable than when I was a kid.

They may even save trees or allow for more generations of use from recycled paper product, so I can ease my conscience at the use of electricity generated by coal, oil, natural gas or uranium.

These seem like perfectly good reasons to try embrace hand dryers; that is, unless you have a child with sensory processing challenges or a child who does not adapt well to changes in their environments or routines.

That description could fit many children, including my son.

We are currently working hard to get Daniel toilet-trained. Between 2 homes, his IBI provider and school, there are a number of things that are being replicated to make it easier to find a routine that will make him successful in 4 different locations.

In the past month and a half Daniel’s toilet-training schedule is a visit to the bathroom every 30 minutes. There are books in the bathroom in our house to encourage him to sit longer. When he is done sitting, he pushes the flush button, turns on the tap, uses a hand pump soap dispenser and then dries his hands on a towel. At IBI and school, there is a wall-mounted soap dispenser and paper towels and the toilet has a handle.

Every Saturday that the twins are with me, we go to the mall downtown for french fries, then to the public library and farmer’s market.

We’ve been going to the library since the twins were infants, so going every Saturday is a well-established routine. The library had to be reconfigured a bit when renovations were being done a couple of years but we could still use the library. It wasn’t a huge adjustment because they did a great job of setting up the children’s area. I was really looking forward to when the work would be completed.

When the construction was done, the transformation was stunning. I worried a bit that it might be a challenge for Daniel, but it didn’t take long to get used to the very different and modern look. His interest most of the time immediately following the re-opening seemed to be with the conveyor belt taking returned items to the basement.

He did well with the changes, until it came time to use the washroom every half hour.

He had been exposed to the new library washroom before, but only because the 3 of us would go in there together if Rachel needed to use it. He knew there was a hand dryer and would sometimes play with it by putting his hand under it to get it started over and over again.

Rachel really disliked how loud it was and in fact doesn’t like to use electric hand dryers at all. We’ve come up with the work around of using toilet paper to dry her hands.

It’s not just that Daniel has to adjust to using electric hand dryers in public washrooms with no paper towel to reinforce what he is using at school and therapy. No, in the family washroom at the library he uses a toilet that has a sensor that flushes whenever he moves and a tap that has a sensor to allow water to pour out whenever he puts his hands in the right spot. He doesn’t always find the right spot. In fact, more often than not he doesn’t find it. The water only runs for a few seconds and I am happy to know that the public library isn’t wasting precious water, but it doesn’t exactly reinforce the routine at the moment. In some public washrooms he also has to contend with getting his hand in the precise position for soap to pop out of the dispenser. After the washing comes, cringingly, the electric hand dryer.

I know that all these things are probably reducing costs and waste and those are great things to do.

I think I better start packing a towel, though.


10 thoughts on “Hand Dryers and Autism

  1. I find all disposable paper products distressing and painful to touch. Paper is made of tree corpses, more disturbing to me than human corpses and horrible to be wasted so casually. So I am very very glad for all these paper-free innovations.

    But I am also autistic with extra-sensitive hearing and a need for routines. When automatic devices started being installed in bathrooms, I mapped out which bathrooms were still “normal” and which were not. This way I knew where to go if I needed normality. Also where to go when ready to work on familiarizing myself with new bathroom systems, which I have been doing gradually. That helped. So grateful for being able to do this now. My parents never made allowances for such fussiness from me. I often wrecked trips for my whole family no matter how hard I tried to mimic my brothers’ amazing (to me) adaptabilities.

    I still carry a small towel when I can. I always use hearing protection and check that my ears are covered before going in public bathrooms. I can even use some of those Dyson hand dryers now but never with unprotected ears.

    The big metal hinges, so common for public bathroom doors, have been much more difficult. The screech can tear through my head in spite of hearing protection. Completely unpredictable what doors will be safe to open. I am always worried opening such doors.


    • I like your idea of mapping out where the safe or normal bathrooms are and I wish that was possible while we are still working on toilet-training. The automatic devices are everywhere these days. I understand why we don’t want to not use paper towels for environmental reasons, but I would never have thought about the texture being an issue. Thank you for sharing that experience.

      I do know some people who react very strongly to certain sounds. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like because I don’t even react when I hear nails on a chalkboard.


  2. My son also had trouble with the Dyson driers (as I did) when they first came out. Way too noisy! (I still jump when one starts up unexpectedly.)
    When he was younger, he couldn’t even cope with the quieter driers. He’s never had a problem with toilet training, but he would cry and be scared of going into public loos, “in case they have those loud dryers in them”. I would take him into the disabled loo instead (which seemed appropriate), and woe betide anyone who challenged us!
    Over the years (he’s nine now), he has learned to cope with noise a lot better, in part because he’s worked out that it will stop. I don’t remember how I first persuaded him to try a Dyson drier, but he instantly thought they were the coolest thing on the planet. It helps that they stop so much more quickly; and for him it’s worth the racket to see the skin thing!

    I still prefer the paper towels, but had never thought of taking my own. Good idea!


    • Taking a towel with us didn’t occur to me until shortly before I wrote about it. It was one of those moments when I thought “why didn’t I think of that sooner?”

      I didn’t think about how little time the Dyson Airblade takes to dry hands being a positive.


  3. I actually like the sensors in modern bathrooms as I’m a bit funny about other people’s germs. The noise of the dryers can be a problem, but the Dyson Blade is more of a ssssssh than a whoo, and it’s quicker, not that bad really.


  4. While Aaron seems to “tolerate” the air dryers, he has difficulty with the toilet flushing. When he is with me I count to three and that gives him time to protect his ears. Some of the toilets are so loud that it is painful for him to endure. Thanks for sharing!


  5. Daniel’s twin NT sister has problems with the noise of many public toilets. I remember several years ago hearing that the Toronto School Board as part of their orientation for new kindergarten students spend some time getting the kids familiar with the loud noise of school toilets. That would be another thing to figure out how to get designers to take the sound into consideration and it would benefit not just those with sensory issues but all of us who find the toilets too loud and startingly.


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