As a parent to a child with autism, I am all too familiar with the challenges that come along with the diagnosis. We both know how difficult it is for a child with autism to break away from their normal routine, much less learn a new skill that is required to thrive out in the world. Potty Training was a task that seemed insurmountable, and after a few failed attempts, I was convinced that my child would be dependent on diapers forever.
I soon learned that with the right tools and a solid, consistent plan, that it was possible for my child to learn to use the potty. With the help of my son’s occupational therapist, and lots of trial and error, we were able to help my child learn the right skills so he could further gain his independence and overcome his fear of going to the potty. It has been said that “slow and steady wins the race,” and my son is proof that potty training a child on the spectrum is not only possible, but worth the struggles that you will inevitably face.
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I am often guilty of forgetting that there are many issues going on with my little one all at once: lack of language, inability to dress himself, not knowing how his body works – the list seems endless… Every child on the spectrum is unique and, therefore, has their own unique challenges. Regardless of what they are, when you place yourself in your child’s shoes, you can start to understand how scary going to the potty might be for them! They are so used to wearing diapers and being changed, it has become a habit that will take time and patience to break. The process can seem overwhelming at first, but by breaking it down into small, conquerable steps, your child will be on their way to leaving diapers behind and becoming more independent.
- Start with apps about the potty. “Potty Training Social Story” by Touch Autism (available on the iPad/iPhone for $3.99 USD) is the first app that was introduced to my son through his occupational therapist. Social stories are a big part of helping a child with autism understand processes and situations. This app thoroughly demonstrated the process of using the potty, from pulling down pants, to washing hands. However, there are countless other apps on the market related to potty training. Find what works best with your child through trial and error.
- Books with your child’s favorite characters are another option. If your child loves Sesame Street or Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, use that to your advantage! Use the book with the easiest language so that your child is able to fully understand the process. If buying a book or an app is not an option, try your local library or search online for a free social story about potty training.
- Once you have decided on a teaching tool (book/app), read together in the bathroom on a daily basis. Make the story engaging and fun by demonstrating for them what the characters are doing. I cannot stress this enough: demonstration is key to your child understanding the process. They need every step visually shown to them so that they fully comprehend what they are supposed to do first, next and last.
- When they are somewhat familiar with the story, have them demonstrate each step. Once my son was familiar with the story, I would ask him, “Can you do what Daniel Tiger is doing?” Keep your child inside their comfort zone by only completing the steps they are the most comfortable with. Follow up with words of encouragement and reward them with a small prize, such as a sucker or a sticker.
- Positive reinforcement is vital. It motivates the child to continue exhibiting a particular behavior: in this case, demonstrating the steps to go potty. My son was terrified of sitting on the potty in the beginning, even though we bought a seat cover with his favorite character on it. It took about six solid months of reviewing the social story and demonstration of the process before he decided to sit on the potty all by himself, and there was a small reward every single time. Even if your child decides he will only pull down his pants and not sit on the potty because he is afraid, that is OK. Reward him anyway! Step by step, your child will eventually gather up the courage to sit on the potty.
- Keep your child on track by using a reward system. Just when I was about to give up hope, it happened. We were at my aunt’s house. My aunt and I were talking in the bathroom. Then all of a sudden, my son comes running into the bathroom, stark naked, and sat on the potty and used the bathroom for the first time. Something finally clicked, and I was ecstatic when it did. I ended up buying him a mini train from the collection that Thomas and Friends has available as an award. The mini trains he started collecting from that day forward have been a huge motivator for him. What is a small toy, item, or activity that your child enjoys, that will reinforce going to the bathroom as a positive behavior? I have also used a special activity as a reinforcer. If my son went to the bathroom three times that day, we would be able to go swimming. It helps if you have a potty chart available so you and your child can keep track of their progress. If you search “potty charts for kids” on the Internet, a multitude of selection is available. Make everything about going to the potty a special moment, because it really is.
- Keep your child naked from the waist down when they are at home, so that they can easily run to the potty when they need to. After my son used the potty for the first time, we kept him naked from the waist down the rest of that weekend. We did this so that he could get used to being out of diapers and so he could easily access the potty. You will need to ask your child every 15-30 minutes if they need to use the potty, to remind them that they need to go in the potty and not on themselves. It is a huge adjustment, so remain positive throughout this process. My son no longer wears diapers during the day now, and only wears one at night at this point. Keep going, and stay consistent!
- Give them the language they need so that they can tell you when they need to go to the bathroom. This part is important because your child may not know how to inform you that they need to use the potty. Use a phrase such as, “I need to go potty” or simply, “Potty now.” This phrase will allow them to initiate the process and become more independent as well as inform you of when they need to go to the potty.
This article was featured in Issue 48 – Connecting and Communicating with Autism