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How To Potty Train a Child with Special Needs: 11 Tips That Help

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How to Potty Train a Child with Special Needs | Potty training a child with autism and other special needs like sensory processing disorder and speech delay can be extremely challenging. From visual schedules and sticker charts to sensory safe products and ideas, we’ve got 11 tips to help parents and special needs kids overcome the challenge of toilet training.

If you’re looking for tips to teach you how to potty train a child with special needs, you’ve come to the right place.

While the internet is filled with all kinds of articles and posts from parents who claim they successfully toilet trained their child in 3 days or less, potty training special needs children can be a very complex and difficult process.

In the face of so many other communication, sensory, and behavioral challenges, potty training kids with autism and other developmental disorders can be extremely overwhelming and frustrating, and while some children grasp the concept with ease, it can take years before others are fully potty trained.

And you know what? That’s completely okay!

While it’s human nature for a parent to want their special needs child to be like his or her neuto-atypical peers, the reality is that they aren’t. Children with developmental delays like autism and sensory processing disorder struggle in ways most of us will never be able to fully comprehend, and if that means your little one isn’t toilet trained until she’s 6, 7, 8, or even 13 years of age, so be it! It’s much more important that she feels safe, secure, and loved, and if she needs to wear diapers longer than most children her age, it’s not the end of the world.

Figuring out how to potty train a child with special needs can be extremely overwhelming. How do you know if she’s ready? What do you do if she’s too scared to sit on the toilet? How do you explain the process to a nonverbal child? What happens if she starts withholding her poo? How do you keep her motivated? How do you avoid sensory meltdowns in public bathrooms? But with a little faith and a lot of patience, it can be done.

In fact, toilet training for special needs kids looks pretty similar to the process used for all children. You just need to figure out your individual child’s strengths and weakness so you can make some tweaks along the way.

Whether you’re looking for tips for toilet training children with autism, sensory processing disorder, or something equally challenging, we’ve got 11 tips to teach you how to potty train a child with special needs.

Make sure she’s ready. There are heaps of great checklists you can reference online to tell if your child is physically ready to start toilet training – doesn’t like the feel of wet or dirty diapers, has a predictable toileting schedule, can stay dry for long stretches of time, etc. – but it’s important to ensure your child is also mentally ready to start using the toilet. Does she show an interest in watching you go to the bathroom? Has she ever practiced sitting on the toilet? Is she excited about wearing big girl underpants? The more engaged and interested your child is, the more successful the experience will be, so pay close attention to her cues.

Wait until you’re ready. Yup. Even if your child is 100% ready to start toilet training, the effort will be completely futile if you’re not emotionally ready yourself. The more impatient and stressed you are, the less successful your child will be, so try to find a time when your schedule is a little lighter and you can stick around the house for a few days.

Keep a log. A great tip to consider before you start potty training kids with autism and other special needs is to keep a log of toileting activity for a week. How often does she pee? What time of day does she have a bowel movement? Is there some sort of predictability to her toileting habits? Knowing the answers to these questions can make a huge difference in helping you plan ahead.

Use a visual chart. A visual chart with photos depicting the different steps involved in using the potty can make all the difference in potty training special needs children. It helps them understand and remember the sequence of events needed to void in the toilet, and can help foster greater independence.

Establish a warning signal. If your child is nonverbal, you will want to come up with a signal she can give to you when the urge to go to the bathroom strikes, like ringing a bell or using sign language. This is really important to ensure she can communicate with you in an appropriate way to avoid unnecessary accidents that might hinder her potty training success.

Set a timer. When D-Day arrives, you want to ensure you are taking your child to the potty at regular intervals, and a tool like the Potty Watch can help. You can set 3 different reminder times – 30, 60, or 90 minutes – and as long as your little one isn’t sensitive to noise and flashing lights, the reminder prompts can be a fun way to keep her engaged and excited. If sensory stimuli are troublesome for your child, a Time Timer(R) MOD may be a better choice.

Motivate with rewards. A great way to get kids excited about potty training is to create a reward chart. Sticker charts like this one from Sesame Street are great as you can choose a TV character, animal, or other theme your child loves to make it especially exciting for her. Another effective option when it comes to toilet training for special needs kids is to have a ‘treasure box’ filled with small toys in the bathroom. Each time your child is successful in using the toilet, she can select and play with one toy for 5 minutes.

Remove sensory distractions. If your child has sensory issues, you must ensure to be cognizant of sights, sounds, and smells that may hinder her ability to cope with potty training. A great example is the automatic flush system used in many public bathrooms. While annoying to adults, they can be absolutely terrifying to small children with sensory issues, so plan wisely.

PRO TIP: Carry a book of Post-It Notes in your purse and place one overtop of the automatic sensor in public bathrooms.

Put her in big girl underpants. While it might seem best to keep a child in pull-ups until she is able to hold her pee and poo for long periods of time, one of the best things you can do when toilet training children with autism and other special needs is to ditch the diapers completely. Will this be messy? Absolutely! But diapers and pull-ups mask the full feeling of wetness associated with toileting accidents, which means that can actually hold your child back from potty training success.

PRO TIP: If you need to leave the house and worry your child will have an accident, consider putting a pull-up overtop of her underpants. While not ideal, it will help keep messes to a minimum should she have an accident while still allowing her to feel some of the wetness and discomfort to help her grasp the concept of toilet training.

Be patient. Toilet training children with autism and other special needs is not easy, particularly if the child is plagued with sensory and communication challenges, and patience is extremely important. You want the experience to be positive and rewarding, not negative and frightening, and it’s important to celebrate even the smallest wins along the way to keep your little one motivated. Consider enlisting the help of others – close family and friends, occupational and behavioral therapists, etc. – to help make the process a little easier, and remember to keep your sense of humor about you at all times!

Don’t be afraid to take a break. If your child isn’t grasping the concept or is showing signs of distress by holding her bowels, don’t be afraid to take a break. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your child’s health and happiness is much more important than ditching the diapers.

While all of these tips and tricks will prove helpful if you’re struggling to figure out how to potty train a child with special needs, the single most important thing you can do when it comes to potty training kids with autism and other developmental disorders is to stop comparing yourself and your child to others. You simply cannot force a child to learn how to use the potty until she is ready and willing, and while well-intentioned friends and family members will be quick to offer their opinions and strategies about how to potty train a child with special needs, you must find the confidence within yourself to know what does – and doesn’t – work for your child.

Benjamin Spock once said, ‘The child supplies the power but the parents have to do the steering.’ Along those same lines, Joshua J. Marine also said, ‘Challenges are what make life interesting and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.’

In other words, it’s our duty as parents to help our children reach their full potential, and even though there will be times when our efforts seem fruitless, it is our ongoing persistence and perseverance that enables our children to achieve all that they do.

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