Toilet Training Without Tears: A Guide for an Autism Family
Written by Alexandra Newmarch, Provisional Psychologist & Chiu Lau, Principal Psychologist

Toilet training is rarely smooth sailing, but adding a child on the Autism spectrum can add that extra bit of complexity that makes the situation feel overwhelming. However, the good news is, the basic principles and readiness signs are the same for all kids, although they might come a little later than for a typically developing child, and the training itself may take a little longer.

Readiness signs include:

  1. Having some bladder control (able to hold on/stay dry during the daytime for one to two hours)
  2. Having awareness of the physical sensations of being wet/dry
  3. Being able to express this awareness (through words or gestures)
  4. Being able to follow step-by-step instructions

If your child isn’t ready to start training, you’re setting yourself up for a battle of wills.

Start Small

Approach toilet training as a sequence of steps or goals, rather than one big task. Start small – don’t jump straight to sitting on the toilet, start with simply getting used to the toilet and what it’s for. Many families find it’s easier to skip from nappies to toilet, to minimise the changes their child needs to navigate. Other families find it’s easier to go nappies to potty to toilet, as part of their step-by-step sequence. There are good arguments for both sides, so go with what you think will be best for your family.

Be Consistent

Be consistent and specific in the words you use around toilet training, to minimise confusion over what you’re talking about – “sit on the toilet to do a poo” instead of “sit on the toilet”.

Give Praise

Use lots of praise and rewards. Be specific with your praise too, so that your child knows exactly what they’re being praised for, and learns to associate sitting on the toilet with positive things. So instead of saying, “Good job!” try “Good job letting me know you needed to do a wee!” Rewards should follow immediately after the desired action.

Use Visual Aids

Your child may find visual aids or social stories helpful. A visual schedule can be put up close to the toilet as a reference for what to do. You can draw these yourself, download one from the internet, or, if your child is seeing a therapist, ask them for one. Likewise, outlines for social stories can be downloaded and adapted for your own family, or you can make one up yourself. Your child may have one social story for using the toilet at home, one for using a public toilet, and one for using a toilet at a friend’s house.

Form a Routine

Incorporate sitting on the toilet into your child’s routine – don’t just wait for them to tell you they need to go. Different experts have suggested different time-limits for how long the child should sit on the toilet for – from no more than five minutes to ten minutes plus. Decide what you think will work for your child, remembering that you don’t want them to feel like they’re being punished (naughty corner style). Incorporate all the steps of toileting into the routine – all the way from expressing the need to go to drying hands at the end.

Finally, if your child has particular sensory difficulties or sensitivities, these may need to be addressed as part of helping your child to feel safe and relaxed using the toilet.

Toilet training is a big milestone, but it doesn’t have to be an overwhelming experience. Celebrate success and look forward towards the goal!


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Kalexanderson.

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