Potty Training on the Spectrum


When I became a mother there was one task that scared me more than the rest – potty training. So, when my son got his diagnosis of severe nonverbal autism, this only heightened my fears for when that infamous time would come. It is an extremely important life skill that I would be responsible for teaching my child. Something about this particular effort always had me feeling uneasy.  Would he be capable of learning this task? Would I be adequate enough to teach him how? When and how do I even start?

One day, I noticed he started going to this one spot behind a chair when he needed to poop. Same spot the next day, and the next, like he was looking for privacy. That’s it! That was the sign I needed that he was ready. I sprang into action, hopped on the internet, and started looking up as much as I could about potty training. What I found was overwhelming. Do this, don’t do this, try this aaahhh!! Why wasn’t there just one article called “How to Potty Train: Step by Step?”

Since this article did not exist, I took all the information I found to be most helpful and realistic to my son’s limitations and started applying it, slowly. The key was to not overwhelm him, to not bombard his brain with too many new things at once so as to not set him up for failure. Let’s break it down, shall we?

Educate and Imitate

I went online and ordered some children’s books to read at bedtime all about going potty and how everyone poops. My husband and I also started bringing him into the bathroom to show and explain to him what goes on in there. The hope was that it would encourage him to use the bathroom.

Finding the Right Seat

While we were working on educating and imitating, I shopped for the right seat. I didn’t want him using one of those small kids’ potties since the goal was to have him using a toilet, so I bought him a nicer seat that comes with a little more. Handles on the side to help with the wiggles, and an attached stool to help him climb up and down but more importantly, it also helps put him in the correct position to move things along easier. The right potty seat really helps.


I bought 4 packs in preparation for many, many accidents. I wanted him to know what it felt like to be wet and uncomfortable if he had an accident, so we only used pull-ups at night. If he didn’t like the feeling of being wet, then he’d learn to associate peeing on himself as the problem and instead pee in the toilet.


Once we were ready to start, I made it a point to get a laminated sheet of paper filled with step-by-step picture instructions on how to use the potty. I stuck it in a place I knew he would be able to see while he sat. I also got a timer for when he was sitting. Since we were having him sit every 10 minutes for 2 minutes at a time, the timer helped him know when he could get down and let us know when we should have him sit again. The sitting intervals gradually increased to every 15-20 minutes once he started to figure it out.


When we break it down, we’re asking a lot of our kids when potty training. We’re not only asking them to learn to control their bladders, no longer pee themselves, and figure out what exactly to do on the potty but also pull their pants and underwear up and down. That’s a lot for one task! Showing my son patience was not always easy. I definitely made mistakes, but I learned from each and every one.

Positive Reinforcement

I went crazy when he actually used the potty. Jumping, clapping, and all the kisses. I also picked a special treat for when he went. M&M’s for number 1, sour patch kids for number 2. These treats were only given when he goes, no other time. That keeps it special.

Learn Their Tells

Everyone has “tell” signs, just like in poker. When my son has to go to the bathroom, he does this little dance where he rocks back and forth. These “tell” signs help to prevent accidents and aid in his progress.

Even though this process was extremely taxing, in the end, it was worth it. My son can now use the potty! While we still have some communication work to do, the mission has been completed. I’m so proud of myself and my son for not giving up, but I’m thrilled that I NEVER have to do this again.


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