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.