Spectrum Warriors: Life Through The Autism Spectrum

The Poopy Post

Potty training a child at the best of times can be challenging. Potty training a child with ASD can be down right near impossible.toilet

As parents, we look forward to that time when we have big girls or boys and can finally celebrate the end of diaper changes. Many children have a natural curiosity with the toilet starting any time after the age of 18 months. This is often not the case for kids on the spectrum, while there’s no “average” age for kids with ASD, the general consensus amongst the parents I know and articles I’ve seen is usually between the age four and six. This was indeed the case in our house. MJ  was a month past her fourth birthday when we finally managed to do the potty dance.

In an interview with Temple Grandin, she lists two main reasons in her opinion, why children have troubles with toilet training — they are either afraid of the toilet (often sensory/auditory), or they have no idea how to use it.  Or a combination of both.

From the time MJ was 18 months old, I started to try and train her, I had her start watching me as I went to the bathroom. I looked  for all the signs she was ready. We had signs of dry diapers, and I lost any hope of ever having privacy in the bathroom  again.  But despite that she just didn’t have an interest in actually using the toilet. Over the course of the next 2+ years I tried every method under the sun – rewards, incentives, the stay home all weekend and let her go butt-naked, sending her to the bathroom every 20 minutes etc. the list goes on and on.  I did them all twice, if not more.  Although we had some success here and there, it didn’t stick. Nothing worked. Any time we tried we had massive tantrums often resulting in physical/aggressive/violent behaviour both at daycare and at home.  She just wasn’t ready.

MJ loves science, she loves experiments and needs to know how things work. One day our daycare provider suggested we try to explain how the body works and see if we can  make progress that way. So I researched and researched. I printed out fact sheets and diagrams of the human body, I even found a great video aimed at kids that showed how the human digestive system works.

She came home from daycare on a Friday at 5:15. I asked her if she wanted to learn about the body and how it worked. She looked at me with the biggest smile on her face and said “Yes mommy yes!” So I pulled out my diagrams, and sat her down. She sat with a calm body, and soaked it up, asking me questions faster than I could answer. This in itself is a big deal since MJ and the phrase sit still don’t usually go together. In 5 minutes she’d devoured all my carefully organized papers and was hungry for more. I showed her the video. She watched it in silence, taking in every word. She then went back to the papers, asked me a few questions and then asked to be excused from the table.

I said yes, but asked her where she was going, she looked at me and said “Up to my room mommy, to change.” I looked at her and asked what she meant. She said “To go get underwear mommy. I finally get it!”

And she did.  She really did. She marched upstairs, took off her diaper, put on underwear and five minutes later, she went to the bathroom and went pee. I was cautiously optimistic, but I also though that perhaps this was like all the other times, a little success and then it would phase out.

Boy was I wrong. 15 minutes and the right method. That’s what it took to potty train my daughter. And I don’t just mean number 1, it was everything – including through the night.  To this day, I am still dumbfounded by this but the more I learn about how kids on the spectrum learn, I’m becoming less surprised.

Many of our kids our visual thinkers, Temple Grandin is famous for telling the world how she thinks in pictures – and not to generalize, but many of our kids are good at science and math. When you begin to put these pieces of the puzzle together, it makes sense that this approach could work.

I shared our success with the psychologist who diagnosed  us – and he said he wasn’t surprised by it – he had heard this kind of thing being effective for kids on the spectrum and said he may even put it down in the list of tricks/tips he recommends to parents. He also said it was in a way something that helped confirm her diagnosis, as it showed that her brain just processes information differently.

MJ has been fully trained now for six months – with less than a handful of accidents – most of which have been our fault.. For example she had an accident after the 10th time in a row she asked to go to the bathroom while at the dinner table and the eleventh time was  not actually an escape tactic.  And once her dad forgot to have her pee before bed (silly daddy!).

Here’s some links to a few of the diagrams we used.





Now I know this approach may not work for everyone, and I know Sabrina used a slightly different approach, so I’m not suggesting this is the one potty-training method to use for all kids with autism.  But here’s what I am saying.

The traditional approach most parents take likely will not work for a child with ASD – without modification.

Think about your child’s strengths – their likes and  their passions. Find a way to incorporate that into learning about the potty.

Use as many visuals as you can – but not abstract ones, use pictures and visuals that are concrete that they can identify with.

And most importantly – do it on their time table. If you are getting tantrums and extreme resistance, it means they aren’t ready. Spend the time to figure out why that is. Maybe they are afraid of the sounds and you need to work on desensitizing the sound of the toilet flushing  first.

Maybe they are scared because they have constipation issues, so deal with that first to avoid any negative associations with toileting.

Happy potting training,




    1. Epilepsy, Hospitals and Waiting Games | Spectrum Warriors: The ABC's of Life in the Spectrum – Tips for Parents
    2. Goodbye Diapers – Potty training using negative and positive reinforcement. | Spectrum Warriors: The ABC's of Life in the Spectrum – Tips for Parents
    3. What We Have Learnt – #AutismPositivity2014 | Spectrum Warriors:The ABC's of Life in the Spectrum-Tips for Parents

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