Potty Training for Kids with Special Needs (Part 1)

Potty training can be a challenge on the best of days. I mean, think about it: you are intentionally trying to break a child’s lifelong habit of doing his business wherever he pleases! Going with the flow (and, no, that’s not a metaphor) is something that he has done multiple times a day literally every single day of his life, so breaking that habit can be tough to get right.

Potty Training for Kids with Special Needs (Part 1)

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When your child has a disability, being toilet trained is not out of reach; it just may take a little bit of extra preparation, patience, and persistence.

Signs of Readiness

We recently published an article about the signs for potty training readiness, and they really aren’t different for kids with disabilities. Your child may show that he is ready to potty train when he is a little bit older than the average of three years old, but look for those signs and get prepared to make a big deal out of every milestone.

One of the best indications for potty training readiness is having good communication about the toilet. Your child needs to be able to let you know when he is dry or wet, and if there is poop or just pee in his diaper. Since the range of disabilities that can muddle up communication is so vast, we’ve created a little list to touch on some of the ways you can modify your approach to toilet training. If your child is nonverbal, don’t fret! There are some tried and true ways to approach potty training even when conventional communication isn’t possible.

Ways to Adapt

Physical

Certain physical disabilities can leave you wondering just how toilet training will work. Wheelchairs, crutches, and sensitive or painful parts of the body can make it difficult to get to the toilet, much less use it successfully. You may want to ask your pediatrician for some specific pointers before you start the potty training process, but you’re definitely going to want to approach the toilet with some critical thinking.

Start by having your child work through the motions in various “dry run” settings. Begin by practicing getting on and off the toilet fully clothed. Then practice pulling on and off clothing that is easy to remove (elastic waistbands and soft fabric). These no-pressure practices are helping your child build up muscle memory and confidence that will help him be successful later on in the process.

There are also some physical things that you can add to your bathroom to help your child potty train. Look for toilet supports and wedges at your local medical supply store, and consider installing handrails in the bathroom to enable your child to get on and off the potty by himself. If your child is a boy and has difficulty sitting down, there are some toilet attachments that turn any potty into a urinal so that your bathroom is safe from spray.

Hearing

If your child is hearing impaired, decide on a pair of signs so that he can let you know when he’s ready to go. Consistently use those signs and that routine each time that you use the potty so that he can associate the action with the sign. Not being able to hear the sounds of toileting (in all of their various forms) can make it harder for your child to associate the sounds and sensations with the potty, but just keep being patient and consistent. It might also help to use picture cards of each of the steps of going to the potty.

Autism Spectrum

The autism spectrum ranges so much that it can be challenging to narrow down exactly what will help your child succeed. Your best bet is to go slow and try to put yourself in his shoes. People on the autism spectrum often have sensory issues, so the loud flush of the toilet, the inconsistent spray when it flushes, a drippy faucet, flickering bathroom light – all of these things can work against you as you try to potty train.

Start by making sure that your bathroom is a comfortable place for your child to be, and then work from there. You may not even want to start in the bathroom! It might be better to start potty training using a potty chair in a completely different room where the child is comfortable, and there isn’t too much newness at once. If your child is afraid of the sound of the potty, practice flushing when no one has even gone to the bathroom. By separating and normalizing each stage independently, you aren’t making too many changes at once, which can help improve your chance of success.

Vision

Vision impairments are tricky but definitely not impossible. Take your child on “tours” of the bathroom by helping their hands feel out the space (and have the hand soap readily available afterward). Since they can’t see you or an older sibling using the toilet, you might want to practice each of the steps and let their hands feel as you unbuckle/unbutton/unzip. Then, they can help you listen for the various sounds. Finally, allow their hands to flush, wash, and dry alongside you.

There are also about a million different potty training chairs and seats on the market, but one to look for that can help your child with a vision impairment is one that incorporates sounds. Some potty chairs play a tune whenever poop or pee is present and even make flushing sounds like a real potty. The auditory element can help your child make the necessary associations to be successful.

Nonverbal

Some children are nonverbal, so it’s hard to know what they know and what they want. As you approach potty training, you’re going to have to be systematic. Take good records of your child’s schedule and plan your potty training sessions around his existing schedule. Use picture charts consistently and consider incorporating sign language if your child has used other signs before. Sometimes potty training becomes more of a learned behavior based on consistent schedules instead of understanding bodily functions, and that’s ok!

Incontinence

Some medication can cause incontinence or constipation, which can delay potty training. Additionally, some children may develop constipation if potty training is too stressful for them. If your child falls into any of these categories, be sure to give them a lot of fiber and water while actively potty training, and keep your language positive and encouraging.

Tune in next time for some more tips and tools for making your potty training experience victorious!

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