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Special Needs Potty Training: Developmental Delays & Autism


Potty training a child with autism or other developmental delays can often be a dreaded process to enter for parents, but it doesn’t have to be! With the proper guidance, education, and expectations potty training can be a hurdle that is jumped over smoothly and with confidence from both you and your child. When it comes to children who have special needs, this process is no different, even if it can pose some extra unique challenges along the way. When we set our expectations at a reasonable height for both ourselves and our children, we can get through this process together, down the path of least resistance.


Autism Spectrum Disorder is a special need that often incorporates sensory sensitivities and communication barriers when it comes to potty training. Even though children with autism may take a little longer to become fully potty trained and they may need a little extra support, they are perfectly capable of successfully completing the potty training process!


We spoke with Molly Johnson, M.Ed of The Autism Consultant and she shared with us some helpful tips to support your child who has autism or other developmental delays through their potty training journey.


Here are 6 tips to support your child with autism:

  1. Prepare in advance: If your child has autism, you know that they dislike changes and possibly have heightened anxiety. A social story is a great visual support to use to prepare them. Use real pictures of your child and the toilet they will be using. Start reading this story 1-3 weeks before you actually attempt potty training.

  2. Use visual support: Let’s play on your child’s visual processing strength! Along with a social story, a task analysis is also a great support. This is a simple, visual break down of each step that goes into using the toilet.

  3. Change location: Start changing your child’s diaper/Pull-Up on the floor of the bathroom instead of their bedroom or living room. We want them to know that we take care of our business in the bathroom.

  4. Reinforcer: We are all motivated in different ways. What is your child motivated by? Use a reinforcer to motivate them to use the toilet. Put a picture of this reinforcer as the last picture on your task analysis. 

  5. Choices: Is your child resisting using underwear? Providing choices can be really powerful! Your child could be refusing the underwear because of the look or feel on their skin. When your child makes a choice, they are more likely to feel ownership of that choice and follow through. 

  6. Routine: Build multiple bathroom breaks into their daily visual schedule. Seeing bathroom breaks on their schedule will communicate the expectation you have set to use the bathroom.


Speech & Language Delays


Another special hurdle that we often encounter while potty training children with autism are delays in speech. Delays in speech and language are among the most common types of developmental delay and can accompany a variety of special needs diagnoses, especially autism. Children who have not been diagnosed with a special need can also experience speech delays. According to healthychildren.org, one out of 5 children will learn to talk or use words later than other children their age.


Are you feeling the struggle with potty training when your child has challenges with communication? Here are some strategies for you from the amazing Rachel Madel, SLP to make it just a little bit easier:


  1. Print out a visual: This can be as simple as taking a photograph of your toilet and laminating it. You could also Google search and download a symbol that can help your child learn an alternative means to communicate when they need to go to the bathroom. If your child uses a high-tech AAC system to communicate, make sure you program "bathroom" on the home page so it's easy to access quickly! 

  2. Be consistent: Share the visual every time you take your child to the bathroom so they begin to pair the visual with the experience of going to the bathroom. If you ask them: "Do you need to go to the bathroom?" be sure to show them the visual you printed, or activate the icon on their AAC system. 

  3. Have patience: Children need lots of exposure to new words in order to learn them, so be patient with the process and make sure you allow a child sufficient wait time if you ask them if they need to go to the bathroom. 


Every unique challenge has a unique solution! No matter how daunting the potty training journey may seem for you and your child, there are resources and specialists who have discovered revolutionary methods and tricks for children who have all sorts of special needs. Every child deserves to be recognized as a extraordinary individual, even throughout the potty training process!

Learn more about potty training children with special needs through my other blog posts, as well as watching my interviews on IGTV with these talented professionals!

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