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Tips for potty training special needs children and starting nursery: From a mum who knows

One of the big milestones in a young child’s life is commencing nursery classes; you have the initial visit to the setting, the child has a nursery visit and then there is a home visit where the staff have a chance to ask questions about your child.

There are questions about whether they can dress themselves, how far ahead they can count and whether they are toilet trained.

Something that (it may be unintentional) receives a negative vibe is if you answer that your child is not out of nappies yet….

There are so many emotions contained with a child starting in a nursery setting anyway, enhanced if your child has either been diagnosed or is commencing the route to a diagnosis of special needs, that I wanted to share mine and other experiences of potty training special needs children.

It is worth pointing out that I had no idea that either of my children were autistic when they started at nursery. D’s lack of social skills and delays in speech and motor skills were picked up within the first half term, with a diagnosis within six months, T was diagnosed very recently at 10 and a half years.

Both my children commenced nursery in the term after their third birthday, still in pull-ups and it felt like we had to rush to get them out of pull-ups and “conform” as quickly as possible.

I soon discovered that neither of my children felt comfortable using a nursery setting toilet – D wouldn’t even “go” in a pull-up – and both preferred to wait until we were at home after the session. I now know it was the sensory overload of smells, puddles on the floor, unflushed toilets and the hand dryers that put them off.

Even now, D will get anxious about using a public toilet and will prefer to wait until we get home. She cannot stand the sound of hand dryers or “noisy” as she calls them and quite often, will also refuse to “go” at her SN school. It’s all very sensory for her.

So, here’s some tips below on potty/toilet training – I asked the autism parents community what they found effective and they came up with some really useful suggestions:

1. Treat your child as an individual

The first thing I would say is that, whether you have an official diagnosis/are heading towards one or there is an “inkling”, your child should be treated as an individual. Children develop at different stages, one child might be toilet-trained at 2, another might not be ready until nearly 4 or later. It should not effect the care or professional judgements on the child.

2. Use visual prompts

Autistic children respond better to visual prompts and a visual timetable can be beneficial (picture to follow).

It can also be useful to take them into the (new to them) toilet setting, explaining with the aid of visuals the process and, if an elder sibling is willing, see someone else using the toilet. Start to change nappies in the bathroom, followed by hand washing and hand drying.

3. Perhaps consider missing out the potty?

Another suggestion is to progress from nappies/pull ups to the toilet without having a potty as a stop-gap. We didn’t do this and I wish we had because it would have been so much easier (and less mess)!

4, Use incentives, including a sticker chart

Incentives can also be very useful and effective. For us, we used a sticker chart, but other parents mentioned the use of a bowl of tiny presents (toy cars/sweets) with her child being able to choose one whenever he sat on the toilet. Again, very visual. You could even combine the two.

My children can sometimes rush the process and to prevent “walkers not washers”, I always have baby wipes available in the bathroom. I probably always will and I’d rather they have clean hands than be wondering.

5. Persevere

Above all, persevere and accept that your child will get there, when they get there.

Every child is an individual and should be treated as such, not as a “tick” on a professional’s induction form.

With thanks to @swearyTJ, @eamesemma, @LaTMoSimm70 and @nualashortt27 for their input.

Do you have any further tips on potty training with autistic or special needs children? If you do, do let us know below.

Sometimes I feel like a brand but I'm me, a commuting career woman in a previous "life", now a stay-at-home Mumma to two wonderful children, who just happen to have autism too. One at each end of the spectrum, one diagnosed at 4.5 years old and the other, very recently at 10.5 years. I blog to raise awareness and acceptance of autism for them and everyone connected with the autistic spectrum (there's an ever-growing number of us!) Very humbled to have been shortlisted in the Brilliance In Blogging awards for my website. That would be me, @AutismMumma aka Jeannette

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Wednesday 11th of December 2013

We are trying the same tactic. We love the sticker Chart so thank you, Jeanette, for sharing

Mum of One

Monday 23rd of September 2013

We are very close to potty training and I must admit I am dreading it. Some really useful tips here. Thanks for linking up to the Pin it Party :)

anna m

Friday 20th of September 2013

Really useful topic! I spotted this in comment luv and had to come straight over because I just don't know how we are going to manage to get my nearly 4 yr old toilet trained, he has autism and hardly seems to have any awareness of it at the moment. its very hard when they cant talk well!! but to see that other sn mums have managed it eventually and with perserverance you can get good results, is always good to be reminded of when you start despairing about how you will ever manage it! Will definitely be a big achievement once we get through it!

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