Toilet Training Your Child with Autism: Seven Tips for Parents
Training your child to use the toilet can be tough. It takes patience and time. But it’s an important part of helping him or her learn about the body and develop skills necessary for life. It’s also needed to start school. Many pre-schools won’t accept children who are not toilet trained.
There are many books and websites for new parents to help teach kids how to go “potty.” For a child with autism or other developmental disabilities, toilet training can be more difficult because of how they may perceive or react to the different sensations related to toileting. Additional difficulties can arise if there are communication challenges or if the child requires more time to learn a new skill. A parent can usually toilet train their child, but sometimes professional help is needed.
Here are seven tips to help toilet train your child with autism or another developmental disability:
- Wait until the child is ready.
There is no magic age or perfect time to potty train. Kids generally show readiness between the ages of two and four, but sometimes a child isn’t ready then. If that’s the case, wait. There’s no shame in waiting a little longer, and no reason for a parent or child to be embarrassed.
You know your child is ready to be potty trained when they show some or all of these signs:
• The child can pull up and down their pants
• The child is hiding to poop
• The child is showing discomfort when wet
These signs indicate the child is capable of going potty on their own, and that they realize, on some level, that soiling themselves is not quite right.
- Get the diapers out of the house and get your child into underwear.
Kids in general should be switched to underwear at the time of toilet training. For kids with autism, this is even more important because the shift from diapers to underwear may create different sensations for the child, and it may take a little time for them to get comfortable in underwear.
If this is the case, accept it, and recognize that the child may poop or pee in their underwear at first, but that’s okay. Take time to allow the child to become comfortable wearing underwear prior to starting toilet training, if that works better. Then, once the child is comfortable in underwear, begin toilet training. Have the child pick out underwear that is fun and interesting to them – perhaps a style with cartoons or other characters. It’s also okay to target daytime training first and then target night time once the child shows more independence on the toilet.
- Set aside time, ideally a week, when you and your child can be at home together.
Toilet training generally takes about a week if a parent and child are home together every day to do the training. This is important so you can monitor your child and when there is the urge to go potty or initial signs of wetness, you can run your child right to the bathroom so he or she understands that’s where they are supposed to go. You are literally showing your child what to do and teaching them a new skill triggered by their having to pee or poop. Some children require less time and some children require more time, and that is okay too. Just be sure to set up a system that allows consistency with the child’s new routine.
If it’s not possible to be home with your child for a week, it may take longer to teach the behavior, or you may need to call a professional to help with the process.
- Make toilet training fun and rewarding.
Have the child pick out a fun toilet seat with cartoons or other characters, same as with underwear. Make going into the bathroom a party: sing, dance, have balloons in the bathroom, celebrate being in the bathroom with your child. Make peeing or pooping rewarding for the child, perhaps with a piece of candy or cookie after they have peed or pooped. Cheer your child’s success!
If your child fears the toilet, help them not to be afraid. This can be done by taking them to the bathroom and having them sit on the toilet or play around it, with the lid open or closed, with their clothes on — just to get comfortable around the toilet.
- Take peeing and pooping one step at a time.
Usually a child pees first and then gets comfortable pooping in a toilet. That’s okay. If they keep having accidents, keep showing them the places where they had the accident and then walk them to the bathroom to reinforce the relationship between pooping and peeing and using the toilet. Have them say out loud at the spot of the accident “I need to go potty” and then take them to sit on the potty as well as do the toileting routine. Do this even if they have already gone at the scene of the accident. In some cases, repeating this process more than one time can be beneficial. The point is to demonstrate to the child that it is more work to be taken to the potty twice than to go to the toilet initially. This is an advanced technique that may require the help of a professional.
- If the child fears the flushing sound of the toilet or washing their hands after potty, avoid those triggers as part of the training.
Don’t flush the toilet until after the child leaves the room. Don’t wash their hands in the sink — use hand wipes instead. Flushing and hand washing are behaviors that can be taught later on.
- If the child is not communicative, or not very communicative, use substitutions for some verbal instructions during toilet training.
Depending on the age and functioning level of the child, you can use communication devices such as picture-exchange cards, bells or other different tools children can use to communicate non-verbally that they have to go to the bathroom. You can work with this.
If you are having challenges toilet training your child, learn more about how ABA-based behavioral therapy can help or schedule a complementary 30-minute phone or in person consultation.
About the Author
Shana Williams is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who has provided applied behavior analysis (ABA)-based treatment to children and young adults with developmental disabilities since 2008. She became interested in toilet training during her BCBA program through Florida Institute of Technology and working with many clients who had the need of becoming toilet trained.
Shana currently is the Director of Clinical Services with California Psychcare and is based in our Santa Barbara treatment center. She spends her time supervising and mentoring her BCBA colleagues, providing support to families in the Santa Barbara region, and running the social skills group held at the Santa Barbara treatment center each week.
Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, refers to a variety of treatment options that are based on the principles of behavior analysis. ABA uses scientifically-based techniques for understanding and changing behavior, and is the most widely accepted approach to assess and intervene with individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other developmental challenges or delays. This type of therapy is conducted one-on-one, is customized for each person, and is appropriate for individuals of all ages.