Potty training is an obstacle all parents and their children must navigate together. Children with autism have varying skills, needs and abilities that may pose unique challenges in the potty training process. However, you can reach this milestone step by step with time, patience and the right resources.
While toilet training a child with autism can be challenging, it’s worth the effort to help them become more independent. This guide will explain when and how to potty train your child and offer tips to make the process go as smoothly as possible.
Things to Consider Before Potty Training
When you compare yourself to others, it’s easy to become frustrated or disappointed if potty training doesn’t go as smoothly as you anticipated. It’s important to remember that every potty training experience is different, and children with autism may require more patience and attention than other kids. Here are some obstacles you could face:
- Creating new routines: If your child is used to a rigid schedule in a consistent environment, introducing potty training can be a challenging adjustment.
- Overcoming communication barriers: Depending on your child’s ability to communicate verbally, they may have trouble telling you when they have to use the bathroom.
- Understanding bodily functions: Some children need time to understand the connection between the feeling of having to urinate and actual urination.
How to Know When It’s Time to Start
There is no specific age to start potty training. Children on the autism spectrum have unique needs and abilities that will impact their potty training timeline. Children with autism rarely demonstrate toilet readiness at the same age as their peers, and most aren’t ready to learn until they’re several years older.
Potty training too early can be ineffective and frustrating. Waiting for the right time ensures your child is willing and able to learn these new skills. Your child might be displaying signs that they are ready to potty train if they:
- Tell you or gesture when they’re wet or dry.
- Try to take off their diaper when it’s soiled.
- Cry or seem uncomfortable in a dirty diaper.
- Urinate and have bowel movements on a consistent schedule.
- Can stay dry for at least one hour.
- Can follow simple directions.
- Can communicate their needs.
- Feel comfortable in the bathroom.
- Are willing to sit on the toilet.
Children who exhibit these signs recognize when they have soiled themselves and no longer enjoy wearing diapers. They show that their body is ready to use the bathroom on a consistent schedule, which is crucial for toilet training. They understand directions and can communicate their needs somehow — verbally, using pictures or with a device.
Some children may feel weary of the bathroom at first. It’s important for your child to feel safe and comfortable in the bathroom before you start potty training. When you reward your child for spending time in the bathroom with candy or an exciting toy, they will begin to see it as a fun place. Listening to music or playing a game will also help them feel happy and at ease in the space.
The final step before potty training is making sure that your child is comfortable and willing to sit on the toilet. A large toilet seat isn’t designed for tiny bottoms. Look for a child’s potty seat that fits on top of the existing seat. They come in fun designs with your child’s favorite characters, and some even play music. Letting your child choose their own seat will help them get excited about potty training.
If that isn’t enough to make them want to sit on the toilet, you can gradually build this skill. Place them on the toilet and let them get up right before they start crying or acting upset. This helps them learn that getting up is dependent on them sitting calmly.
As they start to feel more comfortable, you can slowly increase their time on the toilet by a few seconds until they can sit there for long enough to urinate or have a bowel movement. It’s crucial to praise and reward your child as they master each skill, so they have a positive experience and are willing to continue learning.
When your child shows all of these skills, you can start the potty training process.
How to Prepare for Potty Training
Potty training is a process that takes several days to initiate. If your child has autism, it can take even longer. When you’re ready to start potty training, it’s helpful to prepare in advance to make the process go as smoothly as possible. Here are some important steps to take before you begin:
1. Clear Your Schedule
Starting the process for toilet training a child with autism requires at least one dedicated week of your time. Many families choose to start the process over the summer or during a holiday break when they can take off work and children are out of school.
It’s crucial to clear your schedule so you can give your child undivided attention during this time. You should devote the entire week to following your potty training routine and rushing your child to the toilet if needed to prevent accidents in between sit times. Choose the best time that works for your family to focus on reaching this important milestone.
2. Let People Know
It takes a village to potty train a child. Let your child’s teachers and care providers know that you’re starting potty training. They may be able to help you through this process.
The principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) can help increase the success of your toilet training process. If your child has an ABA provider, they can work with you to create a program that works for a child with autism. The potty training process included in this guide incorporates many ABA strategies.
3. Protect Your Home
When you start potty training, accidents are bound to happen. Preparing your home ahead of time can help protect carpet and furniture and make cleanup easier. Some people use plastic to cover fabric surfaces or rent a special cleaning device. Consider keeping a stockpile of cleaning supplies and paper towels on hand. It’s important to remember that, while potty training can be messy, it’s worth it to help your child learn a lifelong skill.
4. Gather Supplies
During potty training, children are encouraged to drink more liquids so they have extra opportunities to practice urinating on the toilet. Parents can stock up on their favorite drinks and maybe a few snacks, so their child is more likely to consume fluids.
While you’re in the food aisle, grab some small candies or treats that you can use to reward your child when they use the bathroom successfully. If your child isn’t food motivated, you could also motivate them with small, inexpensive toys. It’s essential to choose something that they don’t usually get and are excited to earn.
You should also consider stocking up on underwear, socks and clothing that may become soiled during this time. If your child has several accidents, it helps to have a stockpile of fresh clothes. It’s also a good idea to purchase extra laundry supplies and stain remover to wash soiled clothing.
Another helpful tip is to purchase a few activities or toys to entertain your child while they’re sitting on the toilet. You can use items you already have around the house, but sometimes new things can make the child’s experience a little more exciting.
5. Prepare Your Child
One of the most important steps to prepare for potty training is getting your child ready to start the process. Spend time talking to them about potty training and answer any questions they may have. Children’s books with pictures can help explain the process in a way kids can understand. Animated videos featuring your child’s favorite characters can be even more effective.
After introducing them to potty training with books and other resources, you can take them into the bathroom so they get used to spending time there. Showing them their new toilet seats and bathroom toys can help them get excited about learning how to use the potty. You can also show them the treats they can earn for using the toilet.
Another method some people find helpful is to model going to the bathroom in front of your child. If you feel comfortable with this strategy, it can provide real-life exposure to help your child learn.
The Potty Training Process
When your child is ready and you’ve finished the preparations, the toilet training process can begin! The following strategies will help you successfully potty train a child with autism:
1. Getting the Day Started
Potty training begins the moment your child wakes up. Take them to the toilet right away and set a timer for 10 minutes. If they empty their bladder before the 10 minutes is over, they earn a reward and get to leave the toilet for the remainder of those 10 minutes plus an additional five-minute break. If they don’t urinate within those 10 minutes, they still get to leave the toilet for a five-minute break, but they don’t receive a reward.
2. Push Food and Liquids
It’s important to give your child plenty of liquids during the day to ensure they need to urinate frequently. Fibrous foods are also a good idea to encourage bowel movements. They’re going to spend a lot of time on the toilet, so it helps to give them maximum opportunities to use the bathroom successfully.
3. Repeat the Process
When the first five-minute break is over, praise your child if they stay dry and take them back to the toilet to sit for another 10 minutes or until they urinate. You’ll repeat this process until your child has been successful for one hour.
Be patient if your child doesn’t urinate or if they have an accident during their break. Some children take more time to learn than others. It’s important not to scold them for having an accident. Potty training is a process, and it may take a while before you start to see the results of your hard work.
4. Move Up a Level
There are 12 different levels to this potty training procedure. As your child progresses, they will spend less time on the toilet and more time off, as they gradually become more successful staying dry and eliminating on the toilet.
In the beginning, it can seem like you’re constantly switching back and forth between the bathroom and taking breaks. While some levels require significant effort, they’re necessary to give your child plenty of opportunities to use the toilet with a short enough break that they can stay dry between intervals.
When they’re successful with an interval for one hour, you can progress to the next level. For example, if your child successfully urinates within 10 minutes of sitting on the toilet and stays dry during the five-minute break for an entire hour, they can progress to level 2. If they’re successful at level 2 for one hour, they can move to level 3 and so on until they reach level 12. Here is the schedule for all 12 levels:
- Level 1: Spend 10 minutes on the toilet and 5 minutes off
- Level 2: Spend 10 minutes on the toilet and 10 minutes off
- Level 3: Spend 5 minutes on the toilet and 15 minutes off
- Level 4: Spend 5 minutes on the toilet and 25 minutes off
- Level 5: Spend 5 minutes on the toilet and 35 minutes off
- Level 6: Spend 5 minutes on the toilet and 45 minutes off
- Level 7: Spend 5 minutes on the toilet and 60 minutes off
- Level 8: Spend 5 minutes on the toilet and 90 minutes off
- Level 9: Spend 5 minutes on the toilet and 2 hours off
- Level 10: Spend 5 minutes on the toilet and 2.5 hours off
- Level 11: Spend 5 minutes on the toilet and 3 hours off
- Level 12: Spend 5 minutes on the toilet and 4 hours off
Tips for Potential Challenges and Setbacks
Here are some additional tips to help you overcome some challenges that you may experience:
- Getting stuck at a level: If you’re having trouble moving past a certain level, try reducing liquids back to a typical amount to help your child stay dry. You should also consider if the rewards you’ve chosen are motivating enough. Make sure you offer plenty of praise and encouragement when your child stays dry and uses the toilet. They may need more time to adjust to that level of skill.
- Incorporating real-life activities: During the first six levels of potty training, it’s best to stay in the home where your child can quickly get to the toilet. When they can stay dry for at least an hour, you can start incorporating real-life activities back into your schedule. If they go to school, their teacher or care provider can help maintain their bathroom schedule.
- Training regression: It’s normal for some children to backslide for many different reasons. If your child starts having consistent accidents at a certain level, you can shift them back to the previous level for several hours until you think they’re ready to try the next level again.
Get Help From Early Autism Services
When you’re ready to take your first steps toward potty training, Early Autism Services can provide you with effective strategies to assist you through the process. We understand every child with autism is unique, which is why we take time to get to know your child and create a personalized program tailored to their needs and abilities.
For more information on potty training children on the autism spectrum, check out our free self-guided courses for parents. If you’re interested in ABA therapy services for your child, request a free consultation today!