Monday, February 17, 2014

The Challenges of Potty Training My Autistic Child

Potty training is one of life’s events that we as parents anticipate as well as celebrate. It’s that remarkable mild stone that sets us apart from every other living creature on the planet. Potty training can be a major undertaking, but the one thing that keeps us going is the long awaited ode to the day when we can relinquish diaper duty. Though I dare say, for some of us that day is years in the making.

There are all sorts of gimmicks and gadgets out there to entice our little ones to do the potty thing. Do these gimmicks really work? And furthermore, do they work for the autistic child? Well, I can tell you, gimmicks and gadgets did not work for my son. As a matter of fact, gadgets and gimmicks may have prolonged the process.

I’ve read a lot of information about potty training the typical and autistic child and I have yet to come across information that could have helped me train my son with his unique circumstances.

I started working on potty training my son when he was 3 years old. We had not received an official diagnosis for autism, so there was little to no help offered from medical professionals and therapists. I turned to other parents, books, blogs, television and autism support groups where I found a wealth of information and support.

Over a period of several years, we would try different methods, starting with the tried and true getting on the potty after meal and snack time. We tried getting on the potty every couple hours, every hour, every thirty minutes. We even used the timer method. I was taking suggestions from everyone I knew and still no go. By this time my son hated being on the potty. He would deny himself food and drink to prolong the process. This has become worrisome. My son has a short gut and needs to eat several meals throughout the day and night to gain weight and grow.

Opened to trying just about anything, I sought methods to make potty time as pleasant as possible. I even took the advice of a well-known TV personality, Dr. Phil, who simply said to give the child a party after he goes potty What a novel idea. So, I made my list:

Party hats

Noise makers

Homemade confetti

Large washable play mat



Potty Time Video

Hand sanitizer


1 small child


Party planned. I placed the potty on the play mat, popped the potty video into the VCR, set up snacks and drink and had the party hats, noise makers and confetti waiting in the wings. Now it’s time for the guest of honor. Okay, child properly located, aww, he’s swaying to the potty song. A few minutes later we have success! He did pee-pee in the potty…yeah!!!! I kissed my son, told him he did good pee-pee in the potty and then proceeded to dance around the room, blowing noise makers and tossing confetti. This was going to be the mother of all celebrations…right? Wrong. My child was traumatized and decided not to use the potty ever again. Talk about your low days. All hope literally flushed down the drain. It’s not Dr. Phil’s fault that the party thing didn’t work. Part of the problem was my literal mind and really going all out for the party mood. I should have done something a little more reserved and quite. Live and learn.

Fast forward…My son is now 10 and we’ve just moved into our house. He is still not potty trained and I have seemingly exhausted every possible avenue. There were some who told me to just give up. I had done my best. I guess it’s time to accept that my son might be in diapers for the rest of his life. But wait, my son is able to identify when he needs to go to the bathroom and he indicates that by finding a private place to do so. He even changes himself once he’s done. And the level of control he has over his own body function. Not once in his later years has he had a muddy accident away from home. There’s really only one step left and that’s to get him to use the toilet. There has to be a way to achieve this goal…consistently. After all, what exactly am I fighting…his ability or his will?

As a last ditch effort I cleared the calendar and set up our potty training boot camp. That means we dedicated almost every waking hour to the purpose and practice of toileting properly. Outings were limited to need only. I removed all diapers from sight and replaced them with real underwear. We started off going to the bathroom every 30 minutes, for duration of 5 minutes, allowing extra time after meals and snacks. A diaper was allowed for bedtime. During bed time I set my alarm to wake up every 3 hours so I could get my son up and send him to the bathroom for 5 minutes. I know this sound grueling and it was. My son had to understand that “I don’t want to” was not an option.

I prayed God’s guidance and hoped I was doing the right thing. I didn’t want to push my son to do something that he could not do.

Within a few weeks we developed a rhythm. Progress was being made. Peeing in the toilet was becoming second nature, even while out. We had only three daytime peeing accidents during the entire training process.

Mastering stooling in the toilet came with its own set of challenges and those challenges taught me a great deal about my son’s ability. Midway through potty training boot camp I noticed that my son was not stooling or so I thought. No accident in diapers and no stooling in the toilet. How is that possible? I was concerned. I don’t want him to get sick in the process, so I started paying closer attention to his habits. Ah hah!! That little dickens outsmarted me. My son had a secret stash of pull-ups that he changed into when he felt he needed to stool. He would find a place to relieve himself and then discard the pull-up in the trash, hiding it under other trash if he could. I saw this and could not believe my eyes. How very clever he is. Note to self…never underestimate any child.

I rejoiced at my son’s increased cerebral fortitude, but recognized that I needed to find his secret stash of pull-ups. I checked where I originally hid the pull-ups. No change there. I checked different areas in his room and around the house. I still couldn’t find the secret stash. So I wait. He’ll have to run out of pull-ups soon. It wasn’t long before the inevitable happened. My son is starting to refuse food and drink again. He’s determined not to stool in the toilet or ever, for that fact. Three days pass and still no stool. It’s time to turn up the volume on the training.  Instead of going to the bathroom every 30 minutes to an hour he now has to spend most of his time in the bathroom, taking breaks for eating, playing and sleeping with close supervision. Another day goes by and finally! It happened. Success…true success. This time there were no parties, only a warm smile and a job well done. I continued encouraging his successful self-toileting, which he seemed not to mind. It took all of 3 months to get the bulk of his training done and those 3 months changed our lives forever.

Taking this huge leap did more than just rid us of pull-ups. My son seemed more assured of himself and more mature in how he handles himself. I think we tend to take for granted that which comes easily for “typical children.” We think about the cognitive implications as new life stages are met, but there is very little talk about the child’s sense of self as new challenges are conquered. These things make a tremendous difference in the child’s life. It’s not just about gaining skill, but gaining the knowledge that “I can do.”

Don’t give up! – Sometimes you have to step back, leave a situation where it is and then revisit it much later. If you find that you have to take a break because potty training is way too challenging, then break the process down to the smallest degree. That will be your starting point when you and your child are ready to meet the challenge again.

Don’t compare your child to other children. His natural rate of progression is his alone. Respect that and encourage him to do his personal best.

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