Tips for Potty Training a Special Needs Child

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We’ve been working on potty training our special needs autistic daughter for almost two years now.

We started when she was 2 and she’ll turn 4 this week.

If anyone had told me when we started on this journey that we would still be on it years later, I would have just started sobbing then and there.

Now, to be fair, we didn’t know that she was on the autism spectrum until recently, and hadn’t really figured out what to do with her original diagnosis of MERLD (Mixed Expressive Receptive Language Disorder) that we received around her 3rd birthday.

So up until recently, it didn’t really hit us that we were potty training a child with special needs.

We thought we were potty training a child who had trouble listening. Who didn’t follow directions. Who didn’t understand what we were saying yet. With her being our first child, we also had absolutely nothing to compare the behavior to—no clue what was typical two-year-old behavior and what wasn’t.

Because she’s on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum (Aspergers), it made it even more challenging to diagnose her at a young age. So, long story short, we didn’t know what we were doing at the beginning of this journey with our special needs child.

But you know better and you do better, right?

Now that we are finally nearing the end of the potty training saga (we’ve got pee, we’ve got poop, we can hold it for long periods of time, accidents are becoming a rarity, we’ve said bye to the training potty seat, we aren’t afraid of public toilets, we’re still a little scared of flushing public toilets but that’s completely understandable because they are ridiculously loud—we’re getting there!), it’s a little easier to look back and see what we could have done better form the start and what really worked over the past few years.

Although every family’s situation will be a little bit different because every child is different, here are five little pieces of advice that will hopefully prove to be helpful for you as you start on the journey of potty training a child with special needs.

Tips for Potty Training a Special Needs Child

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1. Settle in for the Long Haul

Go ahead and mentally prepare yourself for the idea that potty training a child with special needs will take a while before you start.

While each and every family’s situation will be different, you could realistically be potty training your child for weeks, months, or even years. And that’s completely, 100% okay. Every child moves and her/his own pace at everything, and potty training is no different.

It will happen when it happens, but when you’re working with a child with special needs, it could happen further down the road that you originally anticipated.

2. Research Every Possible Potty Training Approach You Can

This is good advice for everyone starting on the potty training journey, but it’s especially essential for parents of little ones with special needs.

Again, every situation is different, and maybe your tot will be a master of toileting from day one, but go ahead and prepare yourself just in case s/he isn’t.

Each book and article and blog post that you read will give you another tool in your toolbox. Each parent of potty-trained kids that you seek advice from will give you another idea to consider.

When it comes to potty training, you can’t have enough information to pull from because you never know what will really click with your child. 

3. Don’t Over-read Advice From Parents of Non-special Needs Children

While you’re doing your research and figuring out what approach you may want to start with, it’s also important not to over-read (and then get really stressed out about) articles from parents of non-special needs kids.

We’ve all seen those articles floating around on Pinterest about how “You can potty train an 18-month-old in 48 hours over a single weekend!” I believe that there are families out there that can benefit from those approaches and have a decently potty-trained kid come Sunday evening.

And maybe those techniques will work for your special needs kid, too—you never know! But, if we’re being honest, the chances of potty training a special needs child in 2 days is probably pretty low. (And that’s okay!)

While you absolutely should read pretty much anything you can get your hands on before potty training, take it all with a grain of salt and mentally prepare yourself for the idea that what works for others won’t work for you.

4. Patience, patience, patience

Learning a new skill at any point in life can be challenging, even more so when you’ve only been alive for a year or so, even MORE so when you’re a child with special needs.

Practicing patience in what can be an incredibly stressful situation is such a huge key to supporting your little one on his or her potty training journey.

Take a deep breath when you need to. Leave the room when you need to (as long as your child is somewhere safe). The process of potty training a special needs child will be full of plenty of ups and downs. It’s okay. You’re okay. Your little one is okay. Deep breath. Stay calm. Stay patient.

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5. Know When to Gently Push and When to Step Away

This was such a huge key for us when potty training my autistic daughter, and is probably the best way I can describe the “flow” of our potty training experience.

When we gently pushed, pushed, pushed, we all became overwhelmed and had no success. When we gave time and space and were hands-off for extended periods of time—no success.

It was only with a back and forth between introducing something new (e.g. keeping her on the potty for several minutes at a time to help her overcome her fear) and then stepping away (taking her off, talking with her about it, and then focusing on something else for a little while) that we were able to really see any progress.

The exact flow of “push and step away” will, of course, vary from child to child. Be as present as possible and try to stay checked-in to the process so that you can determine when your child needs a little space, and when s/he needs a little push.