Sunday, March 13, 2011

Potty Training


Potty training can make any parent want to melt down, but there are added twists for families with young autists. Many kids refuse to potty-train for one reason or another.  Picking out their own underwear has no charm. Reward stickers are useless and they are not impressed by charts or earning special priveledges. Even Thomas the Tank Engine underwear can't win this battle! 

Some children cannot tolerate certain underwear material. Their skin feels irritated, itchy, crawly, painful and panties only come in so many fabrics. Some may like their pull-ups, but kids grow out of them.

No matter what curve ball your autist is throwing, here are some tips to take, tweak, or toss, according to your own needs.

Have logical expectations.  If your autist has medical issues that will prevent her from potty training, then you already know that you will be assisting in this area for a very long time. Potty training will depend largely on the severity of autism, the child's function level, and any medical issues. However, you may be able to teach her how to change her own diaper or pull-up as she gets older.  This will be a major accomplishment for the both of you.

If you have an autist who can be potty-trained, that magical age of 2 will most likely be too young, and pressuring her will not help. Some time closer to 4 isn't that uncommon and, it is quite typical for 5 and 6 year olds to still need help during the day and many 7 and 8 year olds are still using pull-ups at night.  Just knowing this can eliminate alot of frustration.  Don't be too surprised if your child is even a little older than these ages listed here, every child is different.

If your potty-training issues are meltdowns,  then start potty-training armed with the idea that you are changing the routine.  The current routine is that your child uses a diaper. She is secure this way; so, she will not love the fabulous, new potty you bought her no matter how many bells and whistles it has. She will not think the princess underwear is to die for.  She wants her diaper. She wants you to change it. And, no she is not going to cooperate!  She's not being naughty.  Having her world disrupted in anyway is very difficult for her.

Simply announce that she is going to use the potty in 20 minutes. Tell her matter of factly and very kindly, but do not argue; and set a timer.  When the buzzer sounds, set her on the potty. ( Link for the Potty Watch​m/. )

Be sure to have whatever it is that she loves or obsesses over on hand: dinosaurs, books, animals, even drawing paper or magna doodle. Allow her to play while sitting on the potty. You don't even have to put the potty in the bathroom.  We actually put ours in the living room!  Autists often hate bathrooms because of echo and are frightened by flushing.

If it's important to you that her potty be in the bathroom, then try making it her very own special place.  Have a basket with some books and toys, especially electronic toys. Put up pictures or posters of things she enjoys, or even a gold fish bowl that will capture her attention. Be in tune with her and think of things that you know she will enjoy. 

If  your child cries while on the potty, be sure to sit and comfort him. Hold him and hug him, but make sure he remains on the potty. After several minutes, remove him, praise him for the wonderful job he's done, even if he just sat there, praise him anyway. Let him know how proud you are. Dress him, and tell him he will sit on the potty again in 20 minutes and set your timer without discussing it further.

Keep repeating this routine every 20 minutes until you finally 'catch' some potty. Then, you can adjust the time to every 45 minutes or how ever often your child goes.  I would stick with the 20 minutes at first so you don't miss out on that first big catch!

After several days, hopefully the meltdowns have decreased. She is still learning a new routine, so whatever you do, don't break the cycle. All you are doing is reassuring her that her sensory issues are being addressed. The key is consistancy.  If you work outside the home you may want to take a couple of weeks off so you can establish this routine. Any caregivers will have to be instructed to keep it up. This hard work will pay off immensely as your child ages, but you've got to put in the hard work first.

After several weeks or months, begin using underwear with the timer. Remember, he will still have accidents. When he does, just clean up as if nothing happened. Do not get angry or upset, he will only be confused.  Even months may pass and you will still be cleaning up accidents now and again. Try not to get frustrated.  You don't get told this alot, but this IS perfectly normal for all children. It is vital that you keep a positive attitude and move forward.

When you're having regular success at home, you may want to venture out. Try to limit yourself to going places where you can have a bathroom break every 45 minutes or so. Wal-mart has bathrooms and many parks have public restrooms. You can either use a portable timer, a watch, or just verbally count down the time. Keep reminding him every 15 minutes so he knows to expect it.  Remember, though, public bathrooms can have a lot of echo, so know ahead of time how you will handle that.

Be prepared. Always bring at least one extra set of clothes. Don't forget wipees and an extra pair of socks and shoes.  It's not worth risking a string of success only to have it ruined while shopping or at a play date and washing out the car seat is time consuming.  If you are unable to guarantee the bathroom breaks, opt for the pull-up instead.  You can put the underwear back on when you get back home.

My suggestions for families with an autist who is extremely sensitive to underwear material are very limited. Obviously an internet search may help and no doubt, you've already tried this. You might consider making your own underwear out of material your child does like, or perhaps a family member or friend who is good at sewing could do this. For boys, you could  try boxer shorts.

Don't forget about social stories.  Reading stories about potty-training and about children using the potty is helpful. Start reading them long before you plan to potty train - even a year before.  You may save yourself a lot of grief later on by using this one tip.

Don't worry so much about toilet training throughout the night.  If you have a child that can handle this, that is so wonderful!  But, don't be surprised if it takes a couple of years to get this down.  Don't be discouraged if you are still using pull-ups at night for quite some time.  Waking him up in the night for a potty break, restricing liquids, and hitting the bathroom before bedtime definitely goes hand in hand with dry mornings.  But, sometimes they still just need some age before they have enough control to make it through the night.  

Lastly,  I do know how painful this issue can be. We all have friends with children who are using the bathroom independently at age 2 while our own struggle at the age of 5.  It can feel like our parenting skills aren't very good.  Friends or family who try to help are actually hurtful because they don't understand autism. Protect yourself and most importantly your autist. Follow your gut intuition. If your child doesn't start potty training until the age of 4 or later, so be it.  No one will care when he's 10. It is hard with special needs children because we spend at least 3 times longer potty training our children than parents of typical children. But, keep up the routine, keep up the fight and the good attitude.  Partner with your child, and one day, he will walk up to you and let you know, without any timers, that, "Mommy, I have to go to the bathroom!" 

Annie Eskeldson writes for families of very young autists. Her autist forced her to put every package of panties back on the shelf at the store and also refused to pick out her own.  She was the grandest lover of the diaper and the biggest hater of the potty chair. At age 7, Ashi could do all things 'potty' by herself and at age 7 1/2 is finally potty-trained for nights. Annie credits the timer on the stove for their success. ( We used the timer on the stove, but here is a link for the Potty Watch​m/.)

Annie Eskeldson has 2 published children's books for families coping with autism.

In Ashi's Gift, young autist, Ashi, talks about her odd behaviors and the often frustrated feelings of her Mother.  Together they discover autism is a gift and they are a gift to each other.  In Ashi: In a Class all by Myself, Ashi is old enough for school and oh! how she hates it! Find out how Ashi goes from hating school to loving it with Mommy's determination and the help of some furry friends.  Great for homeschoolers too!
Visit Ashi's Gift Website at

Tags: pottytraining,autism,toddlers,toilettraining,Ashi's Gift,Annie Eskeldson


  1. PChallab Added: 14 Mar, 2011 1:04 am

    Annie, this is so great and could be beneficial to so many...thank you for this post! delete

  2. SashaVeritas Added: 14 Mar, 2011 3:45 pm

    Annie thanks for sharing your experiences. It's such a delicate subject, and even though every child differs, I am sure it will help so many families. Thank You! delete

  3. birdakamaude Added: 16 Mar, 2011 5:32 am

    that so describes my current journey! lol my sweetie is 5 and i feel that she is finally truly ready for the task, so we are through week one into our journey and we have already had 1 successful peepee! yay! we are doing similar to what you describe and my motivator for her is bubbles ;) I also have these sensors that i can put in her pullup that play "It's a small world" when she wets, they are found at the Tinkle Toonz website. I give her a break on days she's stressed and try not to press her too much and she's had only 1 small meltdown. Thank you for sharing this! and your angel is beautiful! ~blessings!

  4. Michelley Added: 16 Mar, 2011 12:44 pm

    I agree! It just depends when they are ready for that task! Such a great post...! delete

  5. jason_halloway Added: 17 Mar, 2011 2:59 am

    Awesome post! So true and helpful. Informative!

  6. Thanks for sharing your experiences with potty training! I'm sure that it will be very helpful for many families. There are a lot of different techniques out there, and writing about what worked for you and why helps to give parents an understanding of why their child will act a certain way. Like you said, it suggests a place that they can start from and then modify according to their child's needs.

    We had an article on our blog about potty training that was more geared towards kids with Down syndrome, but I think that there are many points in the process which can be applied to any child. Like you said, consistency is the key. Staying positive is really important when going through the potty training process. :-) delete

    Patsy Added: 17 Mar, 2011 10:44 pm

    It's boy is 14 years old and I remember the whole 'potty training phase' like it was yesterday. :-) delete

    jason_halloway Added: 17 Mar, 2011 2:59 am

    Awesome post! So true and helpful. Informative! delete

  7. melreindhart Added: 21 Mar, 2011 4:31 pm

    good post, so true! delete

    daiel_boyd Added: 21 Mar, 2011 12:35 pm

    Potty Training...definitely one of the more difficult phases throughout this journey. delete