Autism and Potty Training: Tips for Toileting Success

Guest post by Emily Ansell Elfer, BA Hons, Dip.

Ask any parent about potty training their child and you will probably hear it was a struggle! Lots of “little accidents” are experienced and many sets of bedsheets and outfits go through the washing machine before “toileting-success” is achieved. But, for children on the autism spectrum, this period of transition can be even more challenging than it is for their neurotypical peers.

Signs autistic children are ready for potty training

Little girl and potty training doll

There is no set age for when a child on the autism spectrum is ready to start potting training as each child has their own needs and develops at their own pace. So, rather than focusing on the age of the child, it is generally best to take note of their skills and abilities as signs they might be ready for the challenge.

If your child is able to pull their underwear up and down without help, this is a good indication they have the motor skills needed for starting potty training. Also, take note of whether your child can sit upright without support and feels comfortable sitting on a potty.

If your child has shown interest in the toilet/bathrooms (perhaps they have sat on the toilet or tried to copy how their parents use the bathroom) that’s a great indicator the child is ready to start potty training!

It’s also interesting to see some children dislike sitting in their own mess—if the child is trying to remove their diaper/nappy after filling it, you know a desire to be potty trained is already in place to some extent.

How to potty train children on the autism spectrum

Baby sitting on a potty

As surprising as this might sound, many parents report success in skipping the potty and heading straight to the toilet! Many children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) dislike change, so getting them used to the toilet rather than taking on two transitions (potty, then toilet) can make the experience less stressful for the child.

Other suggestions include:

  • Use specific and accurate language, such as “we do our pees in the potty,” so your child understands exactly what the potty is for and when to use it. Most autistic children are literal thinkers
  • Be positive and offer plenty of praise when your child uses the potty correctly: this should help them associate the potty with positivity and alleviate some of their anxiety
  • Don’t force your child to sit on the potty for too long. Five minutes at a time is plenty. Otherwise the potty could feel like a punishment or timeout
  • Make a schedule. Most children on the spectrum prefer routine and predictability. If you’ve developed a good understanding on when your child’s bowel movements occur, encourage them to sit on the potty at those times of day (e.g. first thing in the morning, or shortly after meals)
  • When to take a break from potty training

    Dad teaching son about potty training

    Patience is so important when trying to potty train a child on the autism spectrum. It often takes longer than it does with neurotypical children. If your child is persistently having accidents or becomes reluctant, or even frightened/upset, by the idea of using the potty, it’s best to take a break for a while.

    Using the potty or bathroom should be a positive experience and forcing a child to do something they are not yet ready for could lead to a longer-term issue such as stool withholding. Take a break, recharge, and try again when the time feels right.

    Remember, practice makes perfect! With plenty of patience and encouragement from their caregivers, most children on the spectrum will achieve the potty training milestone.

    Did you enjoy this article? Learn more from Autism Parenting Magazine, the leading international publication for autism families.

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