Potty training a special needs child involves special considerations not always warranted with other children: more patience, more perseverance, and more flexibility are required. Still, when those special needs involve autism, kids are like snowflakes: no two cases are the same. Autism is a spectrum rather than a diagnoses that involves frank and universal symptoms. Some autistic children take to the toilet as though the flush is fabulous, while others want nothing to do with ditching their diapers.
But, there are many ways to potty train an autistic child. For example:
Throw out the rules:
In general, it’s recommended that the average child begin toilet training around the age of three. For special needs children, this number is irrelevant: it’s not about when is right for everyone else; it’s about when is right for them.
Besides, not all children – autistic or otherwise – abide by the three-year rule. Kids are born dictators, believing from birth that they’re in charge and many potty train on their own terms and not on the terms of a peon (i.e., you).
One thing worth noting, however, is for autistic children other types of timing are important. Never begin potty training when your child is undergoing any transitions. If they’re starting a new school or getting a new babysitter or a new sibling, wait until they’ve adapted before you move onto the next evolution.
Know the Signs:
Your child will demonstrate that they’re ready to be potty trained (including in cases where they’re nonverbal). Some of these signs include showing you that they’ve soiled their diaper, being able to follow instructions, having regular bowel movements, and having bladder control (at least adequate control, no one expects a child to hold it for five hours after seven juice boxes).
Once your child exhibits readiness, put them in underwear. Yes, it’s messy and expensive, but it helps kids equate soiling themselves with unpleasantness.
Use Visual Aids:
Many children with autism are visual learners no matter what they’re learning – botany or bowels. Using visual cues like picture cards to demonstrate the step-by-step process helps your child understand the ultimate goal. If you don’t fancy yourself an artist, consider using actual photographs. You can even use your child’s favorite stuffed animal as the model. The camera loves a teddy bear.
Offer Verbal Praise and Rewards:
Though visual aids are important, verbal praise is as well. Tell your child how proud you are of them, reward them with prizes for the desired behavior (reward the smallest successes too), and regale them with tales of stickers and iPads and all the glorious things that await them when they embrace the toilet seat.
For autistic kids, it’s vital to deliver rewards and praise immediately after the desired action is accomplished. According to Autism Speaks, any delay, and your child may fail to correlate the prize with the potty.
Yes, potty training is redundant: you can only praise the poop for so long before you grow bored. But this repetition is particularly important for potty training autistic children. Routine is vital, so set a schedule for bathroom time. Your child will have to go during other times, of course, but a regular schedule helps them understand the point of the potty (and a regular schedule helps them stay regular too).
Carol Cline, author of Potty Training in 3 Days, recommends using one word consistently to discuss the process: a word such as “toilet.” Though there are many euphemisms applicable – john, potty, porcelain throne – using words interchangeably may confuse an autistic child. Using the word ‘’potty” may also cause your child to call the toilet the “potty” forever, even as an adult.
Empower your child to communicate:
Children with limited verbal capabilities face particular challenges in expressing their need to use the toilet. The best thing to do is teach them the simplest ways to signal you (or whomever they are with). You might try another type of visual aid – a picture of the toilet that you clip to their shirt sleeve or belt, for instance. The idea here is for your child to point to the picture when their bladder or bowels are full. Each time they cue you successfully, praise them for their good job. Praise the crap out of them…literally.
Autistic children are wonderful gifts who might need a bit more time to grasp the concepts of childhood. Thus, be patient – know that accidents definitely happen and, when they do, brush them off as no big deal. Because everybody poops…and, sometimes, it’s on the floor.