Potty Training an Autistic Child
Potty training can be challenging for any parent, but it can be especially difficult for parents of autistic children. Many autistic children struggle with transitions, changes to routine, and sensory issues – all of which can make potty training more complex. However, with patience, creativity and by following some key strategies, parents can successfully potty train their autistic child. This article provides tips and guidance on how to potty train an autistic toddler in a sensitive, supportive manner that sets them up for success. We’ll discuss how to prepare for training, motivate your child, accommodate their unique needs and work together with therapists and teachers. While potty training an autistic child takes time and effort, it is an important milestone that, done right, can build self-confidence and independence. With the proper approach, parents can help their autistic child master this essential life skill.
Can a child with autism be potty trained?
Many autistic children have difficulties with transitions, changes to routine, and sensory processing that can make potty training more difficult. Additionally, some autistic children have receptors in their bodies that don’t communicate bladder and bowel urges efficiently to their brains, making it hard for them to recognize when they need to go.
These neurological differences mean that potty training often takes more time for autistic children. Nonverbal children or those with high anxiety may have an especially difficult time learning this new skill. Autistic children also tend to get stuck in habits and have difficulty breaking routines, including wearing diapers.
In short, when and how you should potty train an autistic child will depend on their individual circumstances and learning capabilities.
At what age should you potty train your autistic child? What Are The Signs They Are Ready?
There is no set age for when you should start potty training an autistic child. The timing will depend on your individual child’s development and readiness. Here are some general guidelines on when to consider potty training for an autistic child:
- Between ages 2-4 is often an appropriate window to begin potty training. This age range is typical for starting potty training in neurotypical children as well.
- Signs of readiness in an autistic child can include showing interest in the potty, having longer periods of dry diapers, following simple instructions, or communicating urges through words or behaviors.
- Many experts recommend waiting until the child demonstrates awareness of using the toilet and the ability to sit for short periods. Rushing into training too early can cause distress.
- Autistic children may show readiness later than neurotypical children. It’s important not to compare your child’s progress to benchmarks.
- Work closely with your child’s pediatrician, therapists and teachers to evaluate their developmental level and individual cues they are ready to start.
- Be flexible and willing to pause and return to training if your child is becoming overwhelmed or having setbacks. Moving slowly is key.
Tips For Potty Training an Autistic Child
Potty training an autistic child requires taking things slowly and tailoring the process to your child’s unique needs.
Begin by familiarizing them with the bathroom through books, videos or practice runs fully clothed. Keep routines consistent and set reminder alarms for toilet time.
Use visual aids like picture charts, demonstration with dolls or books to explain the process. Encourage communication of bathroom needs through words, signs or pictures.
Offer rewards like stickers or praise for trying to use the toilet.
Be patient with accidents and calmly help clean up.
Work closely with your child’s therapists to identify adaptations like social stories or relaxation techniques.
With a customized, understanding approach potty training a child with autism is achievable. The most important thing is to provide support while building your child’s confidence and independence.
Issues That Parents Face When Potty Training Their Autistic Child
Below are some of the most common questions you may have when toilet training your autistic child.
My child is afraid of the toilet and does not want to sit on or go near it.
Here are some tips to help an autistic child who is scared of the toilet:
- Go slow and don’t force it. Pushing too hard can increase anxiety and resistance. Give your child space and let them warm up to the toilet at their own pace.
- Social stories and visual aids can help explain the toilet and what happens when we use it. Read these books together and walk through the process in a calm, positive way.
- Start small. Just having your child sit on the toilet fully clothed or play near it is a good first step. Getting used to the toilet environment is key.
- Use flushable stickers or skittles to make flushing rewarding and less scary. Flushing can cause loud, overwhelming noises.
- Install a dimmer switch on bathroom lights to reduce harsh lighting. Light and noise sensitivity is common in autism.
- If sitting on the toilet causes distress, try a potty chair first. This can feel “safer” than a full-size toilet.
- Let your child observe you or a sibling use the bathroom to demystify the process through modeling.
- Offer praise and rewards for any small attempt or step toward the toilet. This positive reinforcement boosts confidence.
- Work with therapists for exposure techniques tailored to your child. Gradual exposure is key for overcoming fears.
With patience, creativity and by making the toilet less intimidating, your child can overcome this common struggle. Celebrate all progress as you work toward success.
My child has an excessive interest in flushing the toilet.
If an autistic child develops an excessive interest in flushing the toilet, here are some tips:
- Set clear rules around flushing. For example, they may only flush after they use the toilet or with permission. Consistency is important.
- Use a visual aid like a picture chart to show when flushing is allowed and not allowed. Refer to it often.
- If they become obsessed with water, give appropriate alternatives like setting aside time to play with water toys in the bathtub.
- Consider installing a toilet with a quieter, gentler flush if the noise is rewarding. Or use a toilet flush handle cover.
- Use a reward system for desired behaviors like using the toilet properly without flushing repeatedly after. Praise good behavior.
- Distract and redirect them when they try to flush at unwanted times. Engage them in another activity.
- If necessary, temporarily disable the flushing mechanism with a restraint for safety. Reenable when supervision allows.
- Evaluate if there is an underlying sensory need being met and provide replacements like a water play station.
- For severe cases, work with an occupational therapist trained in autism for customized strategies.
With close supervision, redirection and planned alternative activities, an autistic child’s fixation on flushing can be managed. Consistency, rewards and addressing the root causes will help.
What if my child has a fear of flushing the toilet?
Here are some tips for helping an autistic child who is afraid of flushing the toilet:
- Don’t force them to flush. Take it slow and provide support until they are comfortable. Praise small steps.
- Flush for them while they are out of the room at first. Over time, move closer as they are able to tolerate it.
- Consider installing a quieter, gentler low-flow toilet if the noise is scary. Or use a toilet handle cover to muffle sound.
- Let them flush by stepping on a pedal or using an automatic sensor flush if touching the handle is the issue.
- Give them noise-cancelling headphones or let them listen to music during flushing until they acclimate.
- Use social stories and books to explain what flushing does in a positive way. The more they understand it, the less scary it may be.
- Validate their feelings and give them comfort items like stuffed animals or fidget toys for support.
- Use rewards like treats or stickers for tolerating gradual exposure to flushing sounds.
- Flush together and make a game of it, like seeing how fast you can race out of the bathroom after flushing.
- If needed, start with just being in the room while you flush, then work up from there.
With a sensitive, step-by-step approach, you can help an autistic child overcome their fear of flushing in time. Go at their pace and offer praise for progress.
What if my child wants to play with toilet paper?
Here are some tips for dealing with an autistic child who wants to play with toilet paper in the bathroom:
- Set clear rules that toilet paper is only for using after going potty and not for play. Communicate rules simply and consistently.
- Provide scheduled play time with sensory toys or tissue paper to meet any sensory seeking needs in a structured way.
- Use a visual schedule to outline specific bathroom steps, without extra play. Offer rewards for following schedule.
- Limit access to toilet paper rolls by covering dispenser or keeping door closed except when in use.
- Directly supervise bathroom time and place toilet paper out of reach. Calmly redirect or remove child if needed.
- Engage child in a preferred activity immediately after bathroom use as distraction from undesired behaviors.
- Praise and reward using toilet paper correctly. Encourage flushing to say “bye bye” when done.
- Use a token system where good behavior earns tokens to exchange later for sensory play rewards.
- For safety, consider switching to toddler toilet paper that doesn’t unroll easily.
With positive reinforcement for appropriate toilet paper use and alternatives to meet sensory needs, this common challenge can be overcome. Stay patient and consistent.
My child likes to play with the toilet water.
If an autistic child is playing with toilet water, here are some tips:
- Use a visual schedule and social story to teach that water play only happens at designated times, like during bath time. Keep repeating and reinforcing these rules.
- Provide a water table or sensory bins with water toys, like pouring cups, squirters, and plastic boats, for structured water play at appropriate times during the day.
- Use a physical barrier like closing the toilet lid or bathroom door to limit access when not using the toilet.
- Directly supervise bathroom time and calmly redirect them to wash hands and exit when finished using the toilet. Praise for following directions.
- Employ child locks on the toilet lid and tank if needed for safety, removing when you are able to monitor usage.
- Offer reinforcements like stickers or treats for using the toilet appropriately without playing in water.
- If flushing is rewarding, install a toilet flushing switch cover to discourage repeated flushing.
- Remain calm yet firm in enforcing rules. Explain consequences like taking away water toys if redirects do not work.
With preparation, structure, and rewards for appropriate toilet use, an autistic child can learn to resist the appealing draw of water play in the toilet. Redirection and supervision are key.
My child is afraid of having a bowel movement?
Here are some tips for helping an autistic child who is fearful of having bowel movements:
- Keep routines and usage of the toilet or potty chair consistent to build familiarity and comfort.
- Use visual schedules and social stories to explain what happens during bowel movements in an age-appropriate way.
- Validate their fears and provide reassurance that you are there to help them through it.
- Make sure diet includes plenty of fiber and fluids to prevent constipation, which can increase fear.
- Encourage child to relax on the toilet with calming sensory items like fidget toys or books. Go at their pace.
- Provide rewards like sticker charts or praise for small steps like sitting on the toilet or trying to go.
- Consider softening stool with stool softening laxatives if large/painful BMs have led to fear. Consult doctor first.
- Allow child privacy during bowel movements but stay nearby for support and encouragement.
- Remind them to take deep breaths and relax their body. Do breathing exercises together.
- Make sure bathroom environment feels safe – nightlights, noise cancelling headphones if sounds trigger.
With preparation, patience and compassion around this common struggle, the child can overcome bowel movement fears over time. Celebrate all progress!
How ABA therapy can help potty train your autistic child
- Breaking down skills into small, manageable steps and teaching them systemically.
- Conducting a functional behavior assessment to understand the causes of accidents or resistance.
- Creating visual schedules, social stories and picture guides to model appropriate bathroom behavior.
- Using prompting and fading techniques to gradually shape successful toileting habits.
- Implementing shaping and chaining to build on small successes towards the goal of independent bathroom use.
- Collecting and analyzing data on accidents, sitting on toilet, etc to identify progress and areas needing improvement.
- Provide consistency across environments and caregivers. Frequent communication is key.
An ABA therapist can collaborate closely with parents to design a customized toilet training plan that sets the autistic child up for bathroom success.