Published On: July 2, 2021
Updated On: March 10, 2023
Children on the autism spectrum face many daily challenges when developing a routine. Similarly, it’s often best if a parent or caretaker teaches skills like household chores, grooming habits, or personal hygiene such as potty training.
Regarding potty training or a toilet routine, showing your child the proper social and hygienic behaviors on a regular schedule can be tricky – but that’s ok. For kids with autism, many behavioral skills are integrated at their own pace with the help of an ABA framework and their support group, so we will go over some of the best ways to teach potty training for children with autism.
In this blog, we’ll look at the following topics on potty training your child with autism:
- Why do autistic children struggle with toilet training?
- Signs it’s time to begin potty training
- What is the average age for an autistic child to be potty trained?
- What is the best way to potty train an autistic child?
Why do Autistic Children Struggle with Toilet Training?
An autistic child’s brain develops differently from the person’s. Unique cognitive functions impact sensory processing, learning, and comprehension. Because of this, teaching them how to use a toilet independently may take longer and require an atypical approach.
Autistic children may experience anxiety, frustration, and overwhelmingness with different stimuli. To help a child feel comfortable and stay calm, allowing the brain to process stimuli associated with toilet training more efficiently.
It’s common for individuals diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder to have sensory processing disorder as a co-occurring condition. A 2021 article shares that “over 80% of children with autism also have sensory processing disorder.”
Some ways that toilet training can lead to over-overload include:
- Flushing sounds
- Sitting on the toilet
- Using toilet paper
- Handwashing (soap, water, and the towel)
Learning and Comprehension
You must be patient with your child as you train them to use the toilet. Some concepts may be more difficult for them to understand than others. Considering additional teaching techniques can help them better comprehend concepts.
Some strategies you can use include visual supports such as picture books about toilet training and alternatives to verbal communication like the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), which involves using cards with pictures, symbols, words, or photos to express needs or ask a question.
Signs It’s Time to Begin Potty Training
Communication – specifically about behaviors at the moment – is often difficult for a child with ASD to convey. However, there are some tell-tale signs that a child with autism is ready for toilet training, such as:
- Telling, gesturing, or showing you soiled clothes soon after an accident.
- Being able to follow simple directions related to toilet training such as ‘go into the bathroom,’ ‘sit on the toilet seat, etc.
- Having bladder control and indicating an understanding of the urgency to use the bathroom
- Being able to pull on and off pants independently
While there is no one-size-fits-all potty training system for a child with autism, you should develop a sense of where they’re at by talking with their therapists and pediatrician and assessing them yourself.
What is the Average Age for an Autistic Child to be Potty Trained?
Typically, a child with autism will be potty trained by three years old, considering they’re given support with learning how to use the toilet. While three years old is the average age for autistic children to finish potty training, some may take longer and require more thorough outside support.
What is the Best Way to Potty Train an Autistic Child?
When the time comes to begin a potty training course for your child, there will be some habits for you and anyone working with them to implement. We recommend the following:
1) Establish a Routine
Consistency and routine play significant roles in the comfort level of autistic children and allow them to learn best.
Creating a routine with different time interval goals, actions, and rewards will allow you to break down the entire behavior into micro-components and teach your child step-by-step. Then, once this routine is established, you can have your child participate in specific timing intervals and sections of the routine for more acute practice.
Read More: A Guide To ABA Therapy
2) Demonstrate Rather Than Tell
The simpler the means of communication, the better for children with autism.
If you can use visual prompts, mimic behaviors, and make verbal cues short, it can help your child. Often, we recommend using a verbal cue and a short verbal direction so that you can build multiple prompts in potty training.
3) Treat Accidents as a Cue; Don’t Punish Them
Accidents are bound to happen on the way to fully potty training any autistic child. Instead of admonishing, discussing, or punishing accidents, remind them that the better behavior is using the restroom correctly. Then, have them practice and go through the toilet routine a few times.
Offer social praise for their compliance. Have them go through the motions to clean up the mess as well. You must follow it up for consistency – but don’t let them see you!
4) Underwear as Soon as Possible
This can be a worrisome step for many parents, but it’s a very positive move for your child. Proper clothing will be much more uncomfortable than diapers if an accident is to happen and will help them associate discomfort with an action they shouldn’t do.
Similarly, we want to encourage full positive behavior, including wearing proper clothing; when you start potty training, take the leap and commit to big boy/girl undies! Have them pick out their favorite characters to get their buy-in. Buy extras, too – a few pairs may end up in the garbage.
5) Reward Desired Behaviors
Especially as you start toilet training, you want simple actions and defined rewards to dictate behaviors. Conditioning positive outcomes that are reinforced will allow you to create the baseline for more complex communication later.
Make sure to reserve a specific type of reward solely for toilet training – including a small reward when they sit on the toilet for a particular amount of time and then a larger one for completing the task properly. It will motivate them to learn this skill based on their desire for scarce rewards. Similarly, reward your child quickly and with reference to your visual supports and verbal cues.
Some behaviors you can offer positive reinforcement for include:
- Sitting on the toilet
- Flushing the toilet
- Hand washing
6) Empower Communication
Ultimately, building better communication is what a lot of behavioral training is about for children with autism. Because there might be limited verbal ability or difficulty in signaling early on, the goal should be to improve the efficiency of your child’s ways to signal that they need to go to the bathroom.
Look for patterns that coincide with both accidents and successful trips. Create days structured around the positives so that you can also reinforce those actions. You should be able to see behavioral patterns that lead to your child needing to pee or poop, for example.
Finally, make sure that the rewards are consistent with each action; it will give your child a better chance of making a connection between the action and the reward.
7) Don’t Potty Train Alone
While it’s often thought of as a private affair, potty training is still a critical behavioral skill that requires the same attention as any other while helping a child with autism. Similarly, it’s often a great deal of work, and you might require more bandwidth or a different approach. Professional help is often the best complement to your at-home efforts, and clinical or in-home training might be needed for an outside perspective.
Every child is different, but we recommend working potty training into your ABA framework sooner than later; it’s better to be early or over-helpful than to develop challenging potty training patterns considering its essential role in day-to-day life.
Learn More About Your Family’s Ally in Growth
At Ally Pediatric Therapy, we have decades of experience assisting families through any and all behavioral challenges for children with autism. Working with professionals to help with potty training can benefit your family and is something we specialize in. We’d love to help make it less stressful for you.
If you’re looking to take the next step toward helping your child with autism, please reach out today – we’d love to help make a difference for you and your family.