Potty training is an important developmental step for every child but can often come with difficulties. The process can be confusing and navigating potty training advice and information found online, in books, or given by family and friends can feel overwhelming. Before you begin the teaching of toilet training, a child with autism needs to be ready to learn toilet training. It’s important to realize that children with autism may be ready later than other children for potty training and that’s ok. Let your child’s motivation and readiness guide the potty training process, rather than your earnestness or desire for them to be out of their diapers once and for all.
Even though there is no “right” age to begin potty training your child with autism, most pediatricians say you can begin the potty training process between 18 and 30 months. However, depending on your child’s developmental level, it may be best to begin toilet training much later on. There are several prerequisite skills that your child should be able to do before you begin potty training with autism. According to the Azrin and Foxx toilet training method, a research-based and widely used method of potty training for children with autism, your child should be able to complete the following skills independently:
Your child should be able to stay dry for several hours and appear to know when he or she is going to urinate. This could be indicated through facial expressions or “squirming” in their seat. Additionally, your child should have demonstrated bladder control by urinating all at one time.
Your child should be physically ready to toilet train by showing they can easily pick objects up and walk without assistance.
Your child should be able to follow 10 instructions: point to nose, eyes, mouth, hair, sit on a chair, stand up, walk with a parent to another room, imitate simple tasks, fetch a particular object, and place one object inside another.
While your child with autism is learning or developing these prerequisite skills, you can also help prepare them for potty training by exposing them to skills and experiences they will encounter during toilet training and assist them in being independent in the future. These include teaching your child different toileting words (“toilet,” “toilet paper,” “flush,” “pull up,” “pull down,” etc.), and modeling or normalizing appropriate toileting behavior and labeling the actions being completed (“Now that I’m finished, I’m going to flush the toilet”). This also includes practicing pulling pants or shorts up and down and learning how to use zippers, buttons, clasps, and snaps.
Finally, teaching your child to comply with instructions and “wait” without meltdowns will be extremely beneficial during the toilet training process. Allowing them to escape non-preferred tasks by tantruming without following your instructions will reinforce this behavior and increase the likelihood that it will happen during potty training.
Some children with autism may not be able to complete these prerequisite skills for up to 30 months of age and that is ok! If your child receives occupational therapy, speech therapy, or Applied Behavior Analysis, discuss incorporating these skills into their sessions. You can also share your desire for your child to learn these skills with their teacher or daycare provider so that they may teach and reinforce these behaviors as well.
Mallory Giacopuzzi is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who has over 10 years of experience serving children, adolescents, and adults with disabilities and their families in a classroom, clinic, and home setting. She is the Program Administrator for an Adult Day Program for adults with autism and other disabilities and a Case Manager for in-home ABA services.
Editor's note: This information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as needed, with a qualified healthcare provider and/or BCBA.