As any mother of young children can attest, there are lots of theories about approaching potty training, and there are usually as many people willing to offer their suggestions on the “right way” to accomplish the goal.
But, just as with any other area of parenting, success comes down to what is right for each individual child and family. This is even more true when dealing with a child who has special needs. A child with a disability may have physical, mental or communication challenges that make it difficult to know when to start the training, what method to use and even how to know if you are making progress.
How Do I Know When To Start?
The most common advice given in parenting books is to watch for signs that your son or daughter is ready to begin potty training. Some of the readiness signs mentioned by Heidi Murkoff in What to Expect the Toddler Years include:
Staying dry for an hour or two at a stretch
Having fairly predictable bowel movements
Awareness of bodily functions
Interest in being clean and dry
Ability to communicate needs and follow simple directions
Can do some simple self-dressing
Curiosity about, and possibly imitation of, other people’s bathroom activities
What Do I Do Now?
Once you have determined that your child is ready to learn, or if you want to help them along in the process, there are lots of ways to go about it. In The No-Cry Potty Training Solution, Elizabeth Pantley offers suggestions for pre-potty training, such as reading books about toileting to your child, teaching the vocabulary you want to use, and practicing following directions.
Pantley also offers a menu of ideas to choose from as you move into the active training phase. Here are a few that may be particularly helpful with a special needs child:
Make it a routine. Instead of asking if the child needs to go, simply take him at regular times or when you think he may have to go.
Make a custom potty book. Take photos of your child at each part of the process and put them in a book by taping together several pieces of cardstock or poster board and then adhering the pictures to the pages. Include pictures from start to finish so she sees the entire process.
Make a potty poster. Similar to the potty book, this would be another visual representation of the steps in the routine, using either pictures of your child or appropriate drawings/icons. Glue the pictures in sequence on a poster board and number them.
Offer a prize. This could range from stickers to inexpensive items from the discount store or a party store’s small favors. If your child can understand the concept, a bigger prize or a special privilege could be earned with a certain number of stickers.
What If We Aren’t Making Any Progress?
If, like I was, you are faced with a child who is well past the “right age” to potty train but who shows few to none of these signs, you may need to take a different approach.
Maria Wheeler, author of Toilet Training for Individuals with Autism or Other Developmental Issues, offers lots of strategies and tips that take into account issues such as sensory processing difficulties, motor challenges and communication needs. After hearing her speak and then reading her book, we put the following plan into place with our then five year old son:
Parent or behavioral support person would take him to the bathroom once every hour. He would be given a five-minute warning with a visual cue and then shown the cue again for the transition.
Once he was sitting on the toilet, a timer would be set for 5 minutes. When the timer went off, he could get up even if he hadn’t gone potty. (Of course, he could get up sooner if he went!)
He would do the entire routine each time, including hand washing, even if he didn’t go potty.
He would be given lots of encouragement and praise for completing each step, with no recriminations for not going potty.
Within a month on this routine, he was consistently staying dry and going potty within a minute or two of sitting down. We were able to gradually lengthen the interval between visits, and he even began wanting to go right away when the five-minute warning was given.
After a few months, he had become independent enough that we could simply tell him to go to the bathroom and he would complete the routine by himself. Eventually, he did start telling us when he needed to go to the bathroom. Although transitioning to him being in control of getting himself to the bathroom felt like a step backward because we were seeing accidents again, it was really a giant step forward in his progress.
A year and a half later, our son is completely trained and independent for daytime, and we are getting ready to tackle nighttime training. Out of everything I have learned from this experience, the best advice I can offer in this whole process is to keep yourself calm and to remember there is always room for hope.
Note: This article appeared originally on Root & Sprout, a parenting ezine which is no longer available online.