What’s So Different About Potty Training An Autistic Child?

boy dad rolls

In many ways, kids with ASD are much the same as all children.  They laugh, they play, and they need to learn basic self-care skills.  They push your limits, and they warm your heart.

Toilet training isn’t one of those warm-your-heart events.

Potty training, all the way to full independence (where you don’t tell them to go, they don’t need wiping assists, etc.) can be a real challenge.  It is the reason that I am working on my next book, the one where I focus on ADL skill training for kids with ASD.  The challenges are real, folks.  There is a reason that most of the toilet training books say that if you need more help with your child, ask your kid’s OT.  Even the books on SPECIAL NEEDS kids will say this!

This is because the combination of sensory processing, communication issues, motor control issues, and behavioral issues are beyond the reach of standard potty training guides.

Here is are SOME of the differences:

  • There are almost always some combo of sensory processing problems.  Even the kids who look terrific most of the time will show you that they are not good modulators of arousal.  The term “arousal” refers to neurological, not sexual, activation.  This means that when they get too challenged/stressed/excited that they cannot calm down the same way that another child of the same age can manage.  Their thought processes, their communication skills, and their tolerance for everything just… tanks.
  • Parents routinely underestimate the sensory experiences of toileting.  A small room, with running water, and wiping of genitals, and clothing moving around, and people giving instructions and responding verbally to instructions….this is a lot for someone who usually manages decently in other situations.  Just writing it, I feel like I am in an airport at rush hour, and I don’t have sensory sensitivity.
  • Learning new motor acts when you don’t usually attend to the salient actions of others is really, really hard.  One of the most universal problems with people who have ASD is that their attention tends to focus on things other than the words, acts, and items that neurotypical people naturally attend to.  This affects learning of every kind, but it really messes with motor learning.  This is not a skill that comes naturally, and you know that is true after you have trained any child.
  • Waiting too long to begin training produces additional problems that are (mostly) unseen to parents until you finally start training.  This is well-known to OTs, but it seems like the word hasn’t spread to pediatricians and psychologists.  The idea that you could not pay dearly for ignoring self-care skill training, and then expect things to go well because now your child can speak rather than sign?  Sorry.  While these skills are ignored, attitudes and behaviors around ADLs were becoming more established every day.  And now you have to chip away at them in order to train.  My book will describe what to do if your child is still young enough to avoid this, and how to alter your current actions to prevent hardening behaviors into stone.

For more help with potty training, read Use Dry Runs With Autistic Kids During Potty Training  and  Toilet Training Strategies to Help The Child With A Receptive Language Delay Succeed! .

If you think that all their defiance is behavior, read When Your Child’s Defiance is Coming From Being Neurologically Disorganized .  And if you need help for toothbrushing too, read  Toothbrushing Tools For Autism That Work! .

Want a book on potty training, just for you?

I just wrote one!!

front cover

The Practical Guide To Toilet Training the Autistic Child:  Sensory-Motor Secrets for Success gives you:

  • A realistic readiness checklist to make it easy to know where you stand.
  • A resource list to find the right good equipment, and a gameplan for important skills like clothing management.
  • You can use Targeted Pre-Training and Collaborative Diapering strategies to make progress with your child right away, right now.
  • A clear explanation of the reasons for all the toilet training challenges that arise, even with great therapies.
  • The hard problems that keep parents up at night (smearing and playing with poop, defiance, withholding, digestive issues) are not ignored; they are dealt with head-on.
  • Training isn’t done until a child can use the bathroom in public with ease.  This means you need to know how to make it happen.  It is in there!

Buy it as a paperback on (where else?) Amazon .

toddlers with rolls

Want more help than a book?

Contact me on my website,  Tranquil Babies , and grab a professional consultation session with me.  This isn’t an OT evaluation. It isn’t treatment.  It is a coaching consult.  We discuss what your team is doing, what they need to add to their services to help you, and how you can use your current tools to build skills now!


By Cathy Collyer

I am a licensed occupational therapist, licensed massage therapist, and certified CBT-i sleep coach in private practice in the NYC area. I have over 25 years of professional experience in adult and pediatric treatment. It has been a joy to help people of all ages improve their ability to grow and thrive! Occupational therapists are focused on enhancing a client's functioning in everyday life. We are practical healthcare providers, interested in teaching, adapting actions and environments, and building a client's useful skills for living their best life, regardless of their challenges. I am the author of five books, including "Staying In The Room: Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID" and "The Practical Guide To Toilet Training the Autistic Child". I lecture on many subjects, including sleep, trauma, and development. Contact me to learn more about how I can help you achieve YOUR goals!

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