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The complete guide to potty train your autistic child

Autism potty training: Tips and tricks for parents

Updated: May 19, 2024 · 18 Minute Read

michelle potty training ceo

Reviewed by:

Michelle Swaney, CEO of The Potty School

Highlights

  • Many kids on the autism spectrum experience challenges while potty training, such as difficulty communicating when they need the toilet, not realizing when they have to use the bathroom, and issues with routine changes.
  • Some kids start learning how to use the toilet from as young as 18 months old and up to age 10. The right time to potty train is when you and your child are ready to stick to a potty training routine.
  • It’s common for kids with autism to wait longer and take longer to potty train, so don’t feel bad if your child hasn’t mastered independent toileting yet.
  • Try to only use proper names for your child’s body parts (vagina, penis, butt, etc.) and potty words (poop, pee) instead of cute nicknames because it might be difficult to change when your child becomes an adult.
  • Create a positive association between potty training and the bathroom. You can reward them immediately with extra praise, tablet time, or a tasty treat.
  • Add a child’s toilet seat (the kind with rubber to help it stay put) and a stool to your regular toilet instead of using a kid’s potty. Many autistic kids have difficulty transitioning to a regular toilet or mistake a kid’s potty as a toy.
  • Leave the bathroom door open so your child can observe if they wish. Watching you in action can help them understand the process.
  • Consistency and patience are the most important ingredients for successful potty training. Everyone in your child’s life should be on the same page, and your potty training plan should match the way you parent and the values you want your child to develop.

Potty training is understandably, one of the most frequently researched topics for kids with autism and other developmental disabilities.1 We’ve put together the most comprehensive guide for potty training kids on the spectrum. Now, let’s get down to business (pun intended)!

 

Why do autistic children have difficulty potty training?

Potty training can be challenging for any child, but it can be even more difficult for autistic children. Kids on the spectrum may have barriers to potty training such as:

 

  • Difficulty sensing when they need to go
  • Lack of discomfort when their diaper/pull-up is soiled
  • Sensory challenges (like the loud flushing of the toilet or the coldness of the toilet seat)
  • Sitting still for extended periods of time
  • Challenges with communication (such as not understanding what to do, or not knowing how to ask for the potty)
  • Tummy problems that complicate the process (like pain during bowel movements or irregularity)
  • Upsetting potty training experiences in the past
  • Difficulty adjusting to change (your child is used to “going” in a diaper or pull-up – using the toilet is a huge change!)

 

What age should I start potty training?

When you start depends on your family and child. It’s very common for kids with autism to potty train later in life compared to their non-autistic peers, or to take a while to adjust to using the bathroom compared to other kids. But, this isn’t always the case. Oftentimes the process is elongated for autistic families, so it actually makes more sense to start initiating routines and building healthy pottying habits early.

 

Some kids start learning how to use the toilet from as young as 18 months old and up to age 10. Even if your child is older than 10 (or an adult!), and even if you have never tried potty training before, it is almost always possible to make some pottying progress. That could be something as simple (but helpful!) as pushing down their own pants or wiping. Don’t give up hope, because it’s never too late to start!

 

It’s important to know that potty training is unique to each child, so don’t feel bad if you’ve tried methods that didn’t work before. It’s also easy to fall into the “comparison game” of comparing your child to neurotypical (non-autistic) kids of the same age. If you haven’t started potty training yet, don’t beat yourself up. The right time to potty train is when you’re ready to follow through with routines.

 

How do I know if my child is ready to potty train?

Here are some ways you can gauge if your kiddo is ready to learn how to use the toilet:

 

  • They’re removing their pull-up/diaper after they go, or expressing to you somehow that they don’t like the feeling
  • They’re showing signs they know when they’re going (like squatting, hiding, etc.)
  • They’re showing interest in the toilet, bathroom, or someone else going to the bathroom (such as you or a sibling)
  • They’re bringing you a clean pull-up or diaper or asking you to change them (whether that be verbally or some other type of communication)
  • They sit on the toilet or potty on their own
  • Their pull-up/diaper is staying dry for longer periods of time than usual

 

It’s a common misconception that children must show signs of readiness before potty training. Children can still successfully potty train without showing any of these signs. If your child isn’t showing typical signs of potty training readiness, don’t be discouraged! Many parents have been surprised by their children’s ability to potty train, so please don’t think your child is incapable. Most of the time, it’s just that parents haven’t figured out what works best for their child – yet!

 

Keep in mind that certain developmental, cognitive, or physical challenges may make potty training more difficult for your child (and you). In these situations, your child may really not be ready, so it’s okay to wait a little while before attempting toilet training. Don’t worry – even with these challenges, many children are still capable of potty training. If you don’t believe your child can be potty trained, they likely never will be. Your child can become more independent in their toileting, even if it’s just in a small way. Don’t lose hope!

 

How long will potty training take?

Potty training is an important milestone for you and your child, but it’s important to know every child is different and will respond to potty training in their own way. It’s not uncommon for kids on the spectrum to take months or years to fully potty train (meaning getting 100% of the pees and poos in the toilet, without any accidents). The important thing to know is that there’s no deadline. You and your child can potty train at a pace comfortable to them. You don’t have to rush it. In fact, trying to rush may actually make it more difficult for your child to progress.

 

It’s important to note that experts recommend moving away from old-school, rushed potty training methods, in favor of a long-term life skill approach.1 This mentality is echoed by the autistic community, which advocates for teaching our autistic kiddos skills that will allow them to live independent and fulfilling lives. Think of independent toileting like any other life-long skill you want to teach your child. Would you try to teach your teen to drive in just one day? Nope! So toilet training probably won’t take just a day, either.

 

How do I potty train my autistic child?

There is no step-by-step, one-size-fits all way to potty train any child, let alone a child with autism. However, there are some expert strategies you can incorporate into your potty training regimen to make it as successful as possible. 

 

The overall and most important goal of toilet training is to create an association for your child between going to the bathroom (pooping and peeing) and the toilet. If this goal isn’t accomplished, potty training isn’t happening.

 

6 expert tips to prepare for potty training

1. Begin potty communication like “you’re pooing” or “you just peed!” ASAP. This is an important step that many parents overlook. Ideally, you’ll want to begin teaching potty words when your child is still just a baby. This can look like pointing out to your child when they’re doing their business “hey, you’re pooping!” Or noticing your child is peeing in the bath and saying “woah, you just peed! How cool!” The goal of this is to teach your child the names and sensations of those bodily functions and body parts, so that later on, they’ll know what “going” feels like, and what to call it. (This goes for nonverbal kids, too! They may not use those exact words, but they can understand.)

 

Tip: Use proper names for your child’s body parts (vagina, penis, butt, etc.) and potty words (poop, pee) instead of cute nicknames. Using silly names for potty terms may be difficult to change when your child becomes an adult. In addition, knowing the proper names for their private areas is a key factor in preventing and communicating sexual abuse.

 

2. Start changing your child’s diaper or pull-up in the bathroom. If you’re not quite ready to begin potty training yet, start changing your child’s pull-up or diapers in the bathroom. This can create a positive association between peeing/pooping and the bathroom. This is a great option for some kids, but for others, it may just add an extra step that can be confusing to change later on, so use your best judgment. It’s also a good idea to teach your child how to wash their hands before starting potty training. That way, your child won’t be overwhelmed by learning two new things at once. Create the routine of: go to the bathroom, pull up change, wash hands. 

 

Tip: If your child finds comfort in a full diaper, or likes playing in their poop, it’s likely because they enjoy the sensory stimulation they’re getting from those things. Try replicating that sensory experience by getting your child a weighted blanket, allowing them to play with slime, kinetic sand, etc.

 

3. Choose methods that work for your parenting style and individual child. Some parents don’t like using tasty treats to potty train with because they don’t want their child to associate food with behavior. Some parents swear by the “running around naked” method, while others prefer to put their child in underwear. There are general suggestions for how often your child should go to the toilet and how long they should sit, but every child’s tolerance level is different. How often your child needs to “go” will depend on how much they drink, the amount of fiber in their diet, how active they are, and other factors. 

 

You can start with taking your child to the bathroom every hour or every 15-30 minutes, gradually increasing how long they stay on the potty. Whatever schedule you choose, the general consensus is pretty much the same: creating lots of opportunities for your child to use the toilet. Make sure the methods and language you choose fit with your existing parenting style and the values you want to teach your child. It will be confusing to your kiddo if their potty training is different from the way you’d teach them anything else.

 

Tip: If your child doesn’t seem to be aware of their voids (peeing and pooping), the tried and true “no bottoms” method seems to work best. Whether you go underwear or full on naked, it’s an efficient way to help your child make the connection with what their body is doing and the bathroom. The “no bottoms” method also works well for kiddos who have difficulty dressing and undressing themselves, as it removes a cumbersome step between them and using the toilet.

 

4. Modify your expectations. Many parents fear their child may never be fully potty trained (going pee and poo in the toilet every time with no accidents). If your child has additional challenges or this may be a concern for you, try modifying your expectations. Your child can achieve a level of potty independence, even if they can’t perform all the actions on their own. A little independence, such as pulling down their own pants/underwear or wiping themselves can go a long way in helping them feel a sense of dignity. Getting your child in a pottying routine still gets the pee and poop in the toilet, even if they can’t complete all the steps by themselves – that eliminates diaper/pull-up changes and makes life easier for both of you. There are so many options. Reframe what successful potty training goals look like for your family!

 

5. Choose a start date and get everyone on board. Once you’ve decided what your approach will be, putting a “potty plan” down on paper (with room for adjustments, as needed) gets everyone in your child’s life on the same page. We have a potty plan template you can download and fill out. You’ll want to use the same phrases, visual aids, and techniques regardless of which caregiver your child is with or where you are. Potty training is a consistency and patience game. Make sure you’re in agreement and fully committed, and block out time to properly devote to it. The start date is important, too – don’t choose to start potty training near the time of any major events, like a move, divorce, birth of a new baby, school change, etc. It’ll just be too much for you and your child.

 

Tip: You may want to notify your child’s school, babysitters, daycare workers, etc. that there’s going to be a big change happening in their lives, and that may affect your child’s behavior. You can just say “Hey, we’re about to start potty training, so if Bobby seems a bit more frustrated than usual, that’s probably why.”

 

6. Start potty training before you begin potty training. Sounds weird, but let us explain…You’ll want to take a week before you begin potty training to focus on getting your child’s bowels regular and figuring out their routine. How often is your child peeing? How often are they pooping? During this week, you’ll want to ensure your child is getting enough water and fiber intake to have a mostly regular potty schedule. Our potty training expert says many parents start potty training and are also trying to figure out their child’s potty schedule at the same time, which is just too much. According to her, this week of prep is one of the most overlooked steps in the potty training process, but it’s a total game changer.

 

Tip: Continue to ensure your child’s diet is rich in fiber and that they’re drinking plenty of water all throughout the potty training process. You want to give them plenty of opportunities to pee and make bowel movements as easy as possible for them. If your child continues to have irregular or painful pees or poops after implementing these changes, you’ll want to consult their doctor. Don’t start using laxatives or fiber supplements without your pediatrician’s approval and supervision, as they can affect your child’s gut health and overall ability to potty on their own.

 

8 expert strategies to try when you’re potty training

1. Always go for the grown-up potty, if your child’s size allows it. Many children with autism have difficulty transitioning from a child’s potty to a grown-up potty, or like to play with their child’s potty instead of sitting. We suggest adding a child’s toilet seat (the kind with rubber to help it stay put) to your regular toilet and using that for potty training. If your child has a fear of the toilet or the bathroom, that’s something you’ll want to work on first (building up a tolerance to the bathroom and making it a less scary place). However, it’s best to train using the regular toilet, since that’s where they’ll go in the future.

 

Tip: Some kiddos may not understand that a toilet is a toilet, even if it looks different from the one at home. You can help overcome this obstacle by showing your child where the toilets are at school, grandma’s house, at the store, etc., and using the same potty language you’ve already put in place.

 

2. Prepare your child’s potty space and make it comfortable. Use bathroom accessories to make your child comfortable, such as adding a stool so their feet don’t dangle. You may also want to keep fidget toys or other activities like books, games, etc. nearby. Place items they’ll need access to (like soap, a hand towel, etc.) at their level, to help foster their independence. Take into consideration your child’s sensory needs – lighting, smells, sounds, etc. Do you need to choose a milder soap? Could you dim the lights? Potty training means you and your child will be spending a lot of time in the bathroom, so try to make it a fun, easy place your child won’t dread going to.

 

Tip: Involve your child in the process! Let them pick out underwear with their favorite character on it, or a special toy to use only during potty time. You may also let them choose some decorations for the bathroom, like a colorful bath mat or a new shower curtain.

 

3. Give your child free access to the bathroom. We know this is a scary concept for those of us with kiddos who love to play with toilet paper, water, toilets, shampoo, soap…the list goes on. But allowing your child to come and go from the bathroom freely sort of demystifies the space; your child will eventually learn to associate the bathroom and the toilet with their functions. If you’ve got to remove or hide tempting items, go ahead. However, giving your child access to the bathroom allows them to self-initiate using the toilet, which is a huge step in pottying independently.1

 

Tip: Leave the door open while you use the restroom so your child can observe if they wish. Watching you in action can help them understand the process.

 

4. Create a consistent way to communicate. This is also an extremely important tip for nonverbal kiddos, but applies to all kiddos. You’ll want to create a simple, consistent way that you can let your child know when it’s time to go to the bathroom, and when it’s time to complete each step. Similarly, you want to create consistent language, symbols, or a way for your child to express when they need to go, and when they’re “all done”. If your child is non-verbal, use the method of communication they are able to communicate with, such as sign language, communication devices (e.g. tablet, AAC device), or even a simple tool such as ringing a bell, or turning on/off a light when they need to go.

 

Tip: A potty watch with a timer set to let your child know when it’s time to “go” can be very helpful, especially for older children on the spectrum, or those who need a little extra help remembering to use the toilet. If you’re at home, you can also try using Alexa or another home assistance device to remind your child it’s time to go!


 

5. Break the process down into its simplest steps. You’ll want to utilize visual aids, timers, videos, books –  whatever works for your child. This is especially important for nonverbal/non-speaking kiddos. You want to clearly express, in short, simple ways (verbally and visually) what you expect your child to do. Remember, they’re new at this! So make it as simple and easy as possible for them (example: sit on potty, wipe, flush, wash hands). Feel free to eliminate or add steps if the current process is not working for your child. Also, using a timer is a great way to express time visually so your child knows how long to stay on the potty.

 

Tip: Once you find a routine that works, keep the routine and actions the same every time. Many autistic people find comfort in routines, so your child may be more receptive to the change if it’s ordered in a way they can predict.

 

6. Pay attention to your child’s verbal and physical cues. What we mean by this is, be mindful of your child becoming stressed or agitated. The amount of time a child can tolerate sitting on the toilet varies from child to child, but you don’t want to upset them by pushing them past what they’re comfortable with. For your child, that may mean only starting off with 15 second sits and working their way up. Another child may be able to sit for two minutes or more. Whatever the case, take your cues from your kiddo. You’ll also want to be watchful for cues that your child may be having difficulty with bowel movements, or if they have any pain while urinating.

 

Tip: If your child has trouble with bowel movements, such as not knowing how to “push” the poop out, you can try having them blow up balloons or blow bubbles in order to stimulate those tummy muscles and prompt a bowel movement.

 

7. Use verbal praise. Even if you choose to incorporate physical rewards into your child’s toilet training routine, you’ll want to celebrate and give them specific praise for every action they attempt. For example, when your child sits on the toilet for even a moment, “Oh my gosh, you did so good sitting on the potty!” Of course, you’ll want to save any “big” incentives for successful “voids” (pees or poops) in the potty. But you also want to ensure you’re guiding your child with your praise the whole way through. If your child doesn’t like big shows of celebration, you can go a more understated route using calm tones or hand gestures. Whether you’re cheering and ringing cowbells or giving a thumbs up, just make sure you’re letting your kiddo know they’re doing an amazing job.

 

Tip: Use a positive, calm tone throughout all bathroom interactions. Becoming frustrated with them, fussing, or acting disappointed in them can make toilet training a negative experience.

 

8. Use high value rewards immediately. One tried and true technique, especially for autistic kids, is to use a high-value reward (something your child will be very excited about) to incentivize sitting on and using the potty. For some parents, this may just look like giving extra praise, high-fives, hugs, or kisses. For others, it may look like a tasty treat, tablet time, or a special toy. Whichever you choose, you’ll want to reward your child immediately, because most kids experience a disconnect between the action of pottying and the reward by the time it’s all said and done.

 

Tip: Make sure the reward is a preferred item your child can only get during potty times. This makes the incentive something special they associate with doing their business.

 

Toilet training at school

Advocate for toilet training to be incorporated into your child’s IEP (Independent Education Plan). If your child is in school and you’re comfortable with it, you can request that toilet training be made part of your child’s learning plan. This can be accomplished with the help of school staff, such as a paraprofessional, or you can involve your child’s ABA provider (if you have one). While toilet training may not be an option at every school, if you feel it would be beneficial to work it into your child’s school day, talk with your child’s IEP team or your school’s LEA representative.

 

Tip: Bring a copy of your toilet training plan to the school so staff will be on the same page with everyone else in your child’s life. Using different language or techniques will probably confuse your child. You can download our potty plan template here.



Final Thoughts

Don’t freak out, accidents happen. Our expert says accidents are a part of the learning process. “They teach the teacher that your student hasn’t yet learned either what is expected of them, or how to accomplish that task independently.” You can’t ignore accidents, but you want to acknowledge them in a way that is helpful, not shaming. You can point to the accident and say “Oh no! There’s pee on the ground! Pee goes in the toilet,” and then redirect your child to the bathroom and have them sit on the potty. Give your child praise for getting even a little pee or poo in the toilet; this reinforces the preferred behavior: potty goes in the potty. Shaming your child or making an excessive fuss over accidents may create a negative association for them with potty training, or make them feel bad. Take a gentle but matter-of-fact approach. Expect to clean up a lot of messes, but don’t worry, it’ll all be worth it soon!

 

Tip: You’ve got to be attentive and responsive during potty training, otherwise it’s not “potty training”, it’s just cleaning up accidents! If you’re going “bottoms free” or underwear only, you’ll have to be vigilant and present to help your child make potty training progress.

 

Keep practicing and aim for progress, not perfection. We get it – it’s hard to stay on top of number ones and number twos when you’ve got a busy schedule, you’re tired, maybe your kiddo isn’t in the mood – but stay the course! Every day you stick to your potty training regimen, your child gets closer to pottying independently. It’s also super important that you remain patient and gentle with your child throughout the process. As hard as it may be sometimes, remain loving and supportive. Remember, you and your child are on the same team.

 

Tip: Celebrate the progress your child has made and enjoy that with them. If your child can sit, potty, and flush, but can’t pull down their pants by themselves, that’s still a huge win. Don’t get caught up in preconceived notions of what toilet training should be. Focus on what your child can do, not what they haven’t mastered yet.


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Article References

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  7. 8 common potty training questions for special needs kids, answered. beaminghealth.com. Accessed August 31, 2022. https://beaminghealth.com/article/8-common-potty-training-questions-for-special-needs-kids