How to potty train an autistic child

Potty Training a Child with Autism

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder that occurs early in a child’s infancy or before birth, but often isn’t diagnosed until after the child reaches age three.  It primarily manifests in slower development or lack of normal social and interpersonal skills including speech, affection, and social understanding.  A significant percentage of children with autism also experience intellectual disability, which slows their acquisition of scholastic skills as well.

Of course, these delays cause significant challenges in regular life milestones, including switching from diapers to the toilet, a transition that is difficult even with average children.  Certain characteristics of autism, like need for routine, discomfort with change, and sensitivity to physical sensation can make potty-training a stressful experience for an autistic child, and he or she may be resistant to the idea.  Here are some tips for successfully potty-training your child with autism.

Don’t push it.  A non-autistic child may be potty trained by two or three, but don’t be afraid to wait longer for your autistic child.  Your child experiences the world in a unique way and a major transition for a child may be even more traumatic for a child with autism.  Make sure you feel he or she is ready mentally to make the transition.  This doesn’t mean you should wait until he or she is ready to transition on his or her own (since this may be much later than in practical, or may never happen) but when you feel he or she can handle the transition.

Prepare, prepare, prepare.  A major key to teaching and working with children with autism is creating an environment where they feel comfortable.  If new objects or furniture are added to the living space, a child with autism may be thrown for a loop.  If you are going to introduce potty training, introduce the instruments of potty-training (a child’s toilet, a potty-training book) weeks before you plan to actually implement potty-training.

Use a consistent reward system. If your child has a favorite treat, use it as an incentive to go to the bathroom.  One way to keep it on his or her mind, is to keep the treat displayed but out of reach.  Every time he or she asks for the treat remind him or her that it is only for when he or she successfully uses the toilet.

Use a sudden physical change as a reminder.  If your child still wears diapers, take them away and make him or her wear “big kid” underwear.  The changing sensation will make a big difference when he or she feels the urge to go.  Be warned, though, this may not stop a stubborn child from just “going” in his pants if the change is to great.

Do not give in.  Changing routines is a major step for a child with autism and he or she may be resistant to the transition.  Giving in to one temper tantrum teaches your child that he can have his way if he pouts enough.  Once you make the decision that it’s time to potty train, commit to the change.

Read more on, “How can you help a child with autism” and “Managing aggressive behaviour in autistic children

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