Many parents wonder when to start toilet training their child with autism. Potty training a typical child can be difficult. However, it can be even more challenging with children on the spectrum. Read on to learn from my personal experience how autism can impact the toilet training process.
At what age should an autistic child be potty trained?
Often times, children with autism are potty trained at a later age than their typical peers. A general goal is to aim to have your child toilet trained before starting school. However, even if your child isn’t toilet trained before school, you can continue to use these strategies.
Is it difficult to potty train an autistic child?
It can be more challenging due to sensory processing issues, communication needs, and familiarizing a new routine. In this blog, you will learn about how autism often impacts the potty training process. Most children with autism can be potty trained, it just takes a little longer.
Understanding Toilet Training and Your Child with Autism
Toss out everything you’ve learned about toilet training a typical child.
As the parent of a child with autism, this is something I wish I had known ahead of time. I can’t tell you how much well intended advice I received on how to potty train a child. However, many times the advice used for typically developing children does not apply to children with autism. I also wish I had known this because I spent so much time wondering and worrying about why the strategies weren’t working. Also, ignore everything you’ve heard about a child being potty trained in a few days or over a weekend. This will only set you up to feel like you are doing something wrong as a parent. Your child will get there, just know that it may take a little extra time.
There are many factors that can delay children with autism learning how to use the toilet independently. I have compiled a list of things that may impact your child:
- Sensory Processing
Being less sensitive to being wet, sticky, cold, and the other sensations associated with potty training. For a typical child, they will not like these sensations and this may encourage them to use the potty. However, for a child with autism, it may not bother them in the same way if they soil their clothes. Therefore, the strategy of putting the child in underwear instead of pull-ups so that they can “feel” that sensation on their skin may not be as successful. However, putting your child in underwear is still a good idea to get them used to the routine of using the bathroom. Sometimes it’s helpful to take your child to the restroom even after they have an accident and emphasis this is where they go to the bathroom. Also, keeping up with a regular schedule of going to the restroom will also help with developing the routine of using the potty.
Struggles with overall communication skills is common. Many autistic children are nonverbal or lack the tools to effectively communicate their wants/needs. It may be helpful to have picture cards with a picture of the bathroom. Therefore, your child is able to communicate if they need to go. The picture cards can also be used on a visual schedule to set up a routine of going to the bathroom. Even if a child is not requesting on their own to go to the bathroom, it is helpful if you show them the picture every time you take them to the restroom. For more tips on autism, communication, picture exchange, and all things AAC, check out my blog post 5 Common Myths About AAC.
- Peer Pressure
Lacking the social awareness of what other children are doing. Many children on the spectrum are not motivated by what their peers are doing. For a typical child, they may not want to stand out or be different. So this can be helpful in the potty training process. However, an autistic child is often introverted and focused on their own interests. It simply may not bother them if their friends are using the potty and they’re not. It can be helpful to read Children’s books, sing songs, and watch videos to help familiarize them with the process.
- Rigidity with Routine
Being rigid with a routine and wanting things to stay the same. Believe it or not, a child using the bathroom in a pull-up or diaper is all part of a routine that is familiar to them. Therefore, using the potty is a deviation from their normal routine. It is something different from what they are used to. Getting your child to understand that they can use the bathroom in the toilet instead of their pull-up is the first challenge. Again, consistency is the key. Putting your child on a schedule of going to the bathroom, even if they don’t have to go, will help them start to form a new routine.
Making associations is very common for autistic children. Did your child experience anything unexpected while trying to use the potty? Or were they startled while trying to use the bathroom? This may include: a sibling walking in on them, toilet flushing automatically, hearing a loud sound, being left alone to answer a phone call, and numerous other scenarios that may catch your child off guard.
If your autistic child has a negative experience while using the bathroom, they may start to associate that feeling with the potty training process. They may not understand that whatever unexpected event happened that one time, won’t happen every time they go to the bathroom.
Taking your child to the bathroom consistently will help them form a new positive association. If your child won’t go into the bathroom based on a negative experience, then trying these techniques may help. Reading Childrens books about going to the bathroom and social stories are helpful. A social story could focus on reminding your child that they are safe in the bathroom and highlighting the things to expect ahead of time.
- Sensitivity to Sounds
Many autistic children do not like loud noises and will often cover their ears if they hear something loud. This ties in with how a child with autism makes associations and could play a major role in their struggle with potty training. When the toilet flushes, this creates a loud sound. Your child may also be sensitive to the sound of running water in the sink. Be cognizant of how your child responds to these sounds.
Public restrooms, at school or in the community, often present a unique set of challenges. Keep in mind that public restrooms often have a louder sound when a toilet flushes. The sound may be amplified by a larger space. Some bathrooms have an automatic hand dryer which is also very loud. Another thing to be aware of, is that some public toilets flush automatically, which may catch your child off guard. You also have to be aware that other people will be flushing the toilet, washing their hands, and using the hand dryer. This creates a lot of loud and unique sounds.
If you notice that your child is sensitive to loud noises, then try using noise reduction headphones. I find it helpful to prepare my son ahead of time by telling him, “The hand dryer is going to be loud” or “This toilet will flush automatically.” I suggest using the family restroom when out in the community. It cuts down on loud noises and it maximizes your control over the situation. At school, maybe ask if your child can use a single bathroom instead of the larger restroom with several stalls.
- Generalization of Skills
Even after being potty trained, a child may still struggle with generalizing this learned skill. Your child may feel that they can only use a particular bathroom at home. They may also have difficulty using the bathroom at school. Children on the spectrum often struggle to carryover what they have learned across settings. Sometimes, this is the first hurdle in getting your child to understand that they can use the potty in a different setting. To help with generalizing skills, I found it helpful to take the potty cover seat with us when we were out and had to use the public bathroom.
I hope these 7 tips on potty training provide you with a better understanding of your child and why it may take them a little longer to master this skill. Children with autism often have more hurdles to overcome before the toilet training process begins. Understanding how sensory processing, communication, and routine impact your child will help you better understand them. When you understand your child, then you know how to help them and what techniques to try. Most importantly, be encouraged to know that you are not alone. Your child will get there. It just takes a little extra patience and time.
For more potty training tips and ideas, read my blog post: Potty Training Tips for Autism.
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