Toilet Learning Tips and Tricks

Learning a new skill is challenging for both children and parents.   For many children with autism spectrum disorders, learning to use the toilet can take longer and present some unique hurdles.  Here are some common difficulties and strategies:

  • Communication: Both verbal and non-verbal communication challenges can delay toilet learning.  It may be more difficult for your child to tell you when they need to go or to understand your questions and instructions around using the toilet.  Aim for using simple, short phrases “Potty time” instead of longer sentences.  It can also be very helpful to use visual schedules and supports.  Pair a picture of a potty with your verbal cue.

  • Sensory: Your child may be less aware of their own body cues as to when they need to go or when their clothes are wet.  Moving out of diapers and pull-ups and into underwear earlier may help a child make the associations needed.  Remember to try and handle accidents calmly and matter-of-factly.  Use lots of positive praise and attention when your child is successful at attempting to use the toilet.

  • Dressing and physical skills: Being able to pull down and up pants can also get in the way of successful toilet learning.  Loose pants with no buttons, zippers, snaps, or ties may make it easier for your child to be more independent.  Also, try using a smaller potty seat or chair where your child’s feet can touch the ground.  This will be easier for your child to get on and off on their own, and they will feel more stable and comfortable.

  • Routines: Learning a new routine or schedule is typically quite hard for children with autism spectrum disorders.  Make a predictable potty schedule that you stick to each day.  It will be important that all of your child’s caregivers be consistent with the new routine. This will help your child learn.  At first, you can aim for several trips to the potty at the same time each day.  Establishing the routine is more important than whether or not your child actually urinates or has a bowel movement.  Using the same words and visual cues each time will also help.  

Patience and a positive attitude will help the process go more smoothly for both you and your child.  Keep trying and stick with your new routines and schedule.  Celebrate each small step along the way.  Praise your child with words, smiles, hugs, and high-fives for trying, even if he doesn’t go.  Toilet learning is just one part of all of the new skills your child is learning. And each new milestone towards independence is a great achievement.