“Potty train your child in three days,” they said. “It’ll be easy,” they said. To all the special needs parents out there in their sixth month or sixth year of potty training, this post is for you!
My oldest son Owen has autism. The first time we tried to potty train him was just before he turned two. I was pregnant with my second child and due soon. I read an article on how to potty train your toddler in three days and thought it sounded like a lovely plan (insert eye roll here). We were going to have Owen potty trained before his baby brother arrived so we’d only have one child in diapers at a time. What a great idea, right?! I cleared our schedule for three days, determined to potty train my son. I was prepared to be unwavering and consistent in my approach.
The first time I sat him on the potty he acted like a pro pottier. He seemed to enjoy the praise and reinforcements. Very quickly the praise lost its luster and the behaviors began. Hell hath no fury like an autistic toddler who has been told it’s time to go potty. Screaming fits and meltdowns so loud and awful that I was worried the neighbors would call the police. The mere mention of the word potty would result in an absolute meltdown of epic proportions. This was before I knew anything about autism.
Taking my cue from the potty training manual, I was determined to stay in control. Refusing to give in to his tantrums, I’d carry him kicking and screaming to the bathroom, trying unsuccessfully to get him to sit on the potty. It was like trying to give a cat a bath. By the end of day one, Owen and I were both suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. The sound of the toilet flushing would make us jump. The fact that I was eight months pregnant and highly emotional myself didn’t help matters at all. It…was…awful. That night I waved the white flag, curled into a fetal position as much as my distended belly would allow and cried myself to sleep. I think sheer fear kept me from trying again for almost a year.
Then Owen turned three years old. Suddenly all of his peers, some even younger than him, were potty trained seemingly overnight, probably in three days the little brats. Here’s my kid running around the playground with a diaper sticking out of his pants. Feeling the unspoken pressure of having the oldest child in diapers on playdates we began potty training once again.
This time he was willing to be in the same room as the potty. He’d even sit on it for a second or two. Determined I locked us in the bathroom together and planned to wait it out until he went potty. Twenty minutes later and bored out of his mind, he began running in circles. He grabbed the rim of the toilet, stuck his head in until the top of his hair got wet and yelled, “Hello, is there anybody down there?” Coming up for air, he grabbed the potty seat insert, put it on his head and started yelling, “You’ve got a potty on my head.” Meanwhile, I’m chasing him around, chattering a string of commands, none of which he could hear or understand in his manic state. What a rookie! I was so unprepared. Over the next year we would have several starts and stops to our potty training. None ending successfully.
Shortly after Owen turned four he began waking most mornings with a dry diaper. It alarmed me at first, was he dehydrated? I couldn’t believe it. I guess the time had come to seriously try potty training again. A little wiser myself, I began researching potty training for autism, printing out potty training social stories, watching YouTube videos on potty training and talking to my son’s therapists. For weeks before pulling the potty training lever we would watch cartoons and read books about going potty. I marked the day we would start again on his visual calendar and talked a lot about it.
Potty training day had finally arrived and I felt armed and ready. I arranged for the grandparents to watch Eli in the mornings for a few days so I could focus on Owen. I had my basket of reinforcements, a picture schedule taped to the wall and his choice of his very own potty chair or potty insert. He loved the picture schedule and would follow the directions perfectly, a little too perfectly. There was no timetable for each step, so he would race through it like a speed pottier never stopping long enough to actually make a deposit. He was unable to sit on the potty for more than three seconds. Phew. Day one down. I was shaken but still standing.
Day 2, I took a couple of steps back and started reinforcing the length of time that he would sit on the potty. Quite quickly he learned that if he sat still he would get a sticker. He’d get a fruit snack if he was able to sit until the timer on my phone rang. By the end of Day 2, he had peed on the living room carpet, the stairs and kitchen floor but he was sitting on the potty for 30 seconds to a minute every time with no behaviors. I felt tired but had some hope at the end of day 2.
Day 3, I learned that putting underwear on him was better than letting him run around naked. In underwear I could see a wet spot forming before he actually peed. Unfortunately, that involved me following him around all day. I was determined to get him to pee on the potty that day. I’d become the potty ninja.
I pumped him full of enough juice to water log a whale and waited. Ten minutes later I checked his underpants and saw a small wet spot forming. I screamed, “Owen, you have to go potty!” Scaring his body into action, the pee began to flow. It’s amazing the amount of pee a tiny person can produce.
I sat him on the potty but just a second too late. It was like a firehose squirting everywhere. My arms, legs, feet, rug, floor and walls were soaked. The toilet remained dry. I made a huge deal of it anyway. He got a sucker for peeing on the potty, literally, and I got to clean the bathroom. Day 3 was done and some progress had been made.
On Day 4, I woke up smelling of urine and dreaded the day ahead. A bit more weary but determined nonetheless. Jeff kissed me goodbye. He wished me a good day while he walked out the door to his office of fully functioning, potty trained adults. I imagined him walking in front of a bus as he crossed the road to his office. I looked at Owen, sizing him up as he innocently ate his breakfast. I sent up a prayer, asked for strength to get through the day, the morning, the moment. I took a deep breath and asked Owen if he needed to go potty. He looked up at me with those big brown eyes and said, “Um, yeah.” Surprised, my heart jumped in my chest. I picked him up and carried him to the potty. He began to pee just as he sat down! My prayers had been answered! In my excitement, I forgot to help him with a few minor details, as pee shot across his lap and all over me like a water slide. I hardly noticed as I cried and cheered him on.
That was one of those milestones that will forever be etched in my memory. It was more than just peeing on the potty. He was able to process my question, determine if his body needed to pee and then answered me while holding it until we got to the potty. That was HUGE!! He got a sucker and we called Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa to share in our excitement!
That naive, Pollyanna voice inside my head said, “we’ve made it through the toughest part.” Not so. It would be another several days before he made it to the potty again.
During that time I struggled with so many emotions. I was tired, frustrated, and confused. I felt homicidal one minute then ashamed for having that feeling the next. I wondered what I was doing wrong? It felt like everyone else was able to potty train their kids except for me. Finally, feeling beaten, I asked God for help, patience and perseverance. Once again, I peeled myself off of the pee soaked floor, grabbed a pull-up and put it on Owen, calling it a day (or two).
What I learned in that moment of complete defeat was that, for us, potty training would not happen overnight. It would be an ongoing process that may last years. I had to accept that before I could begin to incorporate potty training into our lives instead of stopping our lives to potty train.
Since that pivotal moment, potty training has begun to flow more smoothly. When I begin feeling frustrated or angry, I immediately stop, say a prayer and put on a pull-up. It’s not worth it. I know he will be potty trained someday. I realized that the pressure I was putting on Owen was because of my own insecurities and fears about him not being potty trained at four years old. Once again, my lesson is to let go of others expectations of me and to accept me and my family just as we are, diapers and all.