Toilet-training with Thomas

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Over the space of about two years, I tried many different methods of toilet-training my Autistic son – some methods that were specifically recommended by his therapists, and some that I’d read about online or seen on TV, for normal kiddies. I’d try a new method whenever life wasn’t too busy to focus fully on the task, then take a gap between methods. People had plenty of theories about my failures to toilet-train him, the two most common ones were I wasn’t trying enough methods, and I was trying too many different methods. Either way it was my fault as a parent. Apparently his developmental delays which affected his language and physical abilities weren’t the problem…

It was obvious to me that he just wasn’t ready yet – he couldn’t understand my verbal instructions and couldn’t master the physical skills required to achieve the tasks, but I was under pressure to keep trying (and failing) and so I did.

Finally, when he was around four and a half years old, I felt it was time to try yet again. But this time I didn’t use the methods suggested by his therapists, and I didn’t use some system for normal kids, instead I pulled together my own method based on my understanding of my son – his strengths, weaknesses, and motivations.

I started by making story books about the toileting process, and reading them to him each day. Then I did my best to make him understand that he would get a new Thomas the Tank Engine toy, if he went for a wee in the toilet – I knew which toy he would want the most by watching which ones he got most excited about on the TV programs. I’d pre-bought a few toys from the range that I knew he wanted most. I finally got him to sit on the toilet and keep reminding him that if he stayed there until he did a wee, that he would get his toy.

After two hours of me perched on the edge of the bathtub, while my son anxiously and repeatedly asked when he would get his toy (“Alfie, Alfie”) as he sat on the toilet, it happened. He chose to stand up like he’d seen his dad do, and that was that. He got his toy.

The madness that followed was sadly predictable, but I was ready for it. He wanted a new toy every time he went to the toilet – that was fine, except he often wanted the toy so much that he would stand at the toilet and cry while he desperately tried to make himself pee. He’d have meltdowns when he couldn’t make it happen.

Eventually I managed to get him down from a toy at every wee, to a Thomas book instead, and then down to Thomas stickers. When he started going pooh it was toys for that since it was a big deal, but the wees were at the book stage by then, and so we had a system in place – gradually reducing the reward for each act as he started doing them more often. After about two months we’d even got him off the stickers, and he now goes without any reward, but not before spending over $300 on Thomas rewards connected to toileting.

His therapist was very concerned at more than one stage – that we shouldn’t be using such expensive rewards or for so long. But I’d learnt by this stage to trust my own instincts when they clashed with therapists, and afterall it was me who had cracked the toileting. I knew that if we dropped the highly motivating reward too fast we’d lose him and go backwards (I’d had hints of such already). Yes it cost a lot, but so do nappies. We saw it as an investment in his long-term independence too, which is worth a lot more than $300.

Even now that therapist praises me in front of other people for cracking the toilet-training, and for doing it so well and so fast (he has had very few accidents). When there’s something wrong with your child from birth – such as Autism – you get the reins taken off you as other people step in to tell you what to do and when, based on their (sometimes dubious) expertise of the condition. Your parental instincts are often side-lined or ignored. It’s important to get the confidence and strength to take those reins back, for your child’s sake, but also for your own mental health.

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11 Responses to Toilet-training with Thomas

  1. Carters says:

    What a fantastic post! What a great achievement to have made with him. $300 – totally worth it. I really admire you with how you have been able to manage him & think outside the box with his development. You are a great encouragement to all mums & I can learn alot from you.

  2. Melissa says:

    Can I ask you? Did you use a toilet ring first or a potty chair? My daughter will turn 3 shortly. Therapists are telling me to start with the training and, like you, I sort of really don’t really feel she’s ready.

    • We originally tried a potty chair, without any success. Since he was getting big enough for a toilet ring at 4 years old anyway, we eventually decided to just forget the potty from earlier years, and go straight to the ring. There’s a good reason to go straight to the ring with autistic children anyway: Once they’ve learnt the skill of using the potty, I’ve been told that there can sometimes be transition difficulties getting your child to transfer to a toilet. So it removes that extra problem and transition if you go straight to the ring. I found similar transition problems getting my son to go toilet anywhere but his home toilet, so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if moving from potty to toilet would have been a problem too.

      I’ve read that there is too much pressure – even on neurotypical children – to get them to potty-train too early; that many children simply are not ready when they are 2. For an autistic child it is always going to be an older age because of the developmental delays, particularly because their speech – and often gross and fine motor skills – need time to develop. Pressuring them too early can create new anxieties – they may become afraid and confused if they’re not able to understand what you want from them, or are unable to do it.

      I suggest you listen to your own instincts. If you don’t think she’s ready, chances are she isn’t. The therapists should supply you with a list of things you need in place before you attempt training – like bladder control and basic communication skills (I can’t remember the full list, but there are a few things a child needs first). Talk through your concerns with the therapists too – tell them (if you can) why you don’t think she’s ready, and see what they say. They might not listen or dismiss your concerns because not every therapists is good at their job – don’t let them bully you!

      I do strongly recommend breaking it down into very small steps. Like leaving your child without pants outside for extended periods of time, so you can tell them when they go wee “oh look, you went wee, wee should go in the toilet!” or whatever works. It’s a good chance to see their awareness and their bladder control too. Then encouraging them to tell you if they have done wees in their nappy, or using words each time they do to reinforce it, “you have gone wees, where do wees go? In the toilet!” Then introducing a reward system once you think she’s got the idea. Etc! I don’t think there’s one way to do this – other than gently and slowly and tailored as much as possible to the individual child’s motivations and strengths. And listening to your own instincts!

      Please do let me know if I can help you further, and let me know how you get on, even if it’s two years from now! 🙂

  3. autismsedges says:

    Loved reading this — I wonder if you’d seen the post I wrote that’s on quite a similar topic back in 2006? If you did, I’m wondering if it had been helpful to you? It makes me sad to see that work I struggled so hard with back then is more or less taken for granted now, and not even attributed. And it makes me happy to see that others are benefitting from our work. It’s bittersweet.

    • Hi autismedges. No, I hadn’t read your post, I’ll make sure I do 🙂

      • autismsedges says:

        You should. You’d like it. Your post reflects my thinking on toilet training almost exactly, down to the coining of the neologism “oughtism”! It’s absolutely marvelous! Amazing, really!

      • I thought up the term “oughtism” of my own accord before starting the blog, though I am not the first person to use the word (neither are you by the way). And my toilet training story is my own experience with my own son. I have never read (and still haven’t read) your post. I don’t think I’ve ever even visited your blog site before. When I get the chance I will head over and read it, I haven’t had the spare time yet today.

      • Hi, I finally got around to reading your post, and I don’t find it similar to my own to be honest, I’m not sure why you think they are so much the same. You refer to the word “oughtism” at the end of your post, but it’s not the same meaning I intended when I chose the word for my own blog. Let me explain:

        You say: “We weren’t struggling because of her autism — or whatever it is that goes on for her — we were suffering from “oughtism”: the inflexible belief that something oughta be a particular way, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.” That’s not the focus or idea behind my blog. My son does suffer because of autism – not just “oughtisms”. I meant that as a parent, and as a parent of an autistic child, I keep coming up against what everyone else thinks I should do for my son, and I keep getting swamped in everyone else’s preferences – for both parenting and autism itself.

        In fact, it would be better explained if you looked up a couple of posts I did on the point. Here’s a link to my first ever post: and a link to a post I did about oughtisms more directly: and another one

        I should hope that by the time you finish reading those it will be abundantly obvious that my idea of “oughtisms” – and my entire blog – is very much my own. Not yours. Not anyone else’s.

        • mothersvox says:

          I think you might have been hearing sarcasm where there wasn’t any . . . I really do think it’s marvelous and amazing to consider that we both came up with the oughtism idea when dealing with the same issues around parenting: what other folks think we ought to be doing. Especially amazing that it was coming up around the issue of how/if/when to toilet train, which is certainly riddled with shoulds, oughts, and control issues of all kinds.

          I was revisiting my 2006 oughtism post this week for a new oughtism post (, and in the process happened upon your site. Initially it occurred to me that you had seen my 2006 post since it’s highlighted on my friend MOM-NOS’s site, and you’ve got her blog in your blog roll. But when you said you didn’t know of my site at all, then I said, and say again, it is marvelous and amazing. Truly.

          No sarcasm. Just the marvel of great moms thinking alike.

      • I am so relieved! Yes I did think you were accusing me of plagiarism, which I found quite upsetting! I’m very glad I’m wrong about that. Sorry for the mix-up. I look forward to reading more of your blog in the future 🙂

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