Studies show children with autism spectrum disorder take longer to potty train when compared with their non-ASD peers. On average, children with autism take about one and a half years to potty train to stay consistently dry and may require an additional six months to achieve bowel control. As with many aspects of working with children on the autism spectrum, it’s best to think of the process as a marathon rather than a sprint, so patience and compassion are a necessity.
7 Tips For Potty Training Your Child With Autism Spectrum Disorder
Potty training is a significant milestone for all children and can be daunting for parents. Start by introducing the potty to your child as early as possible. Explain what it is and how it works in simple terms. Teach your child how to use it by showing them, and let them practice sitting on it with their clothes on. Next, create a routine around going to the toilet; take your child to the bathroom and have them sit on the potty at regular times, such as after meals or naps. Encourage them when they use the potty successfully; reward them with verbal praise or small treats such as stickers. Finally, be patient with your child during this process; every child learns at their own pace and may need extra time and guidance before they are fully potty trained.
However, every child with ASD is different, which means much of the behavioral support we use works best when it’s personalized to your child and family. Suppose you’re struggling with toilet training your child with autism. In that case, we recommend contacting ART or a similar agency dedicated to providing behavioral assessment and support for individuals with autism and their families. Until then, we've got some tips to help you help your child go to the toilet and use the potty.
Understand the most common challenges with potty training a child with autism
Understanding why it can take children with ASD longer to potty train helps you shape your child’s training program. Consider which of the following are the most relevant to your situation, and then you can decide which tips are most likely to be effective.
Additional physical or medical reasons. Nearly 75% of children with autism have other medical conditions called co-occurring disorders. These can complicate the potty training process. Disorders such as anxiety, ADHD, Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, or gastrointestinal issues may create issues that require extra attention.
Non-verbal or delayed verbal abilities. If your child doesn’t speak yet, s/he won’t ask to go to the bathroom, so parents and caregivers must look for other cues and establish a straightforward routine.
Complications getting dressed. Children who struggle to pull their pants and underpants down and then pull them back up (which also may translate to difficulties wiping themselves) require more support.
Fears. Children with heightened anxiety or fears may be afraid of the toilet, dread loud flushing noises, or not trust the feeling of a bowel movement dropping out of their bodies. A child afraid to use the toilet will happily find other alternatives until they’re desensitized and can trust otherwise.
Missing body cues. Some children with autism don’t feel or recognize the body’s natural cues signaling it’s time to empty the bladder or bowels until they’ve soiled their pants.
Varied toilets/bathrooms. Many children with ASD potty train at home but have difficulty when you take your child to the toilet in other locations due to different setups, varying flushing mechanisms, etc.
Again, we know it’s challenging, but patience and the ability to remain calm - even amid accidents - are essential to slowly get your child to trust and participate in the potty training routine.
Clear, simple, and visual instructions
Less is always more when communicating with an individual with autism. That’s especially true if the child is largely non-verbal. In this case, start with clear statements, not questions: it’s time to go to the bathroom. Visuals are essential. Place clear visuals on a wall or exterior shower door/curtain with the information your child needs, such as: sitting on the toilet, wiping until clean, flushing the toilet, and washing hands. There are plenty of free online visuals to support these steps.
Create comfort when potty training
Children with autism are often highly-sensitive, which means anything from cold toilet seats, loud flushing mechanisms, or dangling legs can be enough to make them avoidant. Make sure the bathroom and toilet are as comfortable as possible, and consider using a cloth toilet seat cover that diminishes the cold seat issue. A smaller training toilet is ideal for younger or more minor children.
Also, constipation can make bowel movements painful, so check for bowel consistency. If your child seems slightly constipated or bowel movements are uncomfortable or painful, speak to their physician about higher-fiber snacks and alternatives to keep things moving.
Remain calm when accidents happen
That same extrasensory sensitivity can make accidents a nightmare if your response is heightened anger, gesturing, or loud vocalizations. Your child is more prone to tantrums and meltdowns when you’re stressed, anxious, angry, or raising your voice. The more you’re prepared for accidents and remain calm while cleaning them up, the closer you are to a potty-trained child with autism.
Consider using underwear sooner rather than later.
Capitalizing on that notorious sensitivity, we highly recommend shifting your child into training underwear or regular underwear as soon as possible. Modern diapers and pull-ups do a fantastic job of wicking up moisture, which becomes a problem. The drier your child stays, the more content she or he is, which may delay potty training. The discomfort of wearing soiled pants is often an impetus for children with autism to get to the bathroom.
Practice in different bathrooms (earplugs/sound-canceling headphones, anyone?)
Once your child seems to be getting the hang of it in your home bathroom (always the priority), explore other bathrooms so s/he’s exposed to all the possibilities. Public restrooms are notorious for having extremely loud flushing mechanisms, so be prepared. It may even be worth not flushing in these restrooms to keep your child moving forward. If possible, we recommend having earplugs or sound-canceling headphones or having your child step out while you flush the toilet for them.
Positive reinforcement for all the proper steps
Positive reinforcement is the foundation of any behavioral/disciplinary plan and is essential when potty training kids with autism. Getting all the different steps in place may take a while, but encourage your child and immediately reward your child after urination or bowel movement. Waiting too long (like after s/he’s completed all the actions) may confuse the message. By rewarding him/her right after urinating/defecating, she or he learns that is the most crucial step. The rest you can continue to work with overtime. Positive reinforcement can also come from older siblings.
Autism Response Team Creates Personalized Potty Training Steps
Are you struggling to start toilet training? Are you having difficulty understanding what potty training issues your child is struggling with? The Autism Response Team (ART) is here to help. We rely on applied behavioral analysis to get to the individual's heart and then apply what we learn so they can fully participate in everyday activities at home, school, church, and their community at large. Contact us to learn more about what we offer or to get in touch with autism support networks in your area.