Potty training is something I often get asked about, and I’m often reluctant to comment on it too much, as I don’t consider myself to be an expert on the subject by any stretch of the imagination. However, it is a big milestone for children, one that can be difficult to achieve for some, and which can seem to be even more complicated by having a child who finds speech more difficult than his peers. So, I thought the language aspects of toilet training a child were a topic worth writing about. As to whether your child is physically or emotionally ready, I refer you to wiser sources of knowledge such as here and here!
What I am going to talk about is how to know whether your child has the necessary language skills to potty train and how to help them with understanding what it is all about.
What language skills does a child need to potty train successfully?
If your child is able to do the following, they probably have sufficient language skills to potty train.
- Initiate a request – your child needs to be able to seek an adult out to communicate that they need the toilet. They don’t necessarily need to be able to say “I need a wee” or even “wee”, but they need to have the concept of wanting to communicate a message and going to someone to communicate.
- Consistently understand at least a few words – specifically “potty?”!
- Reliably indicate yes/no. This might be through speech, nodding or shaking their heads, signing or using symbols but they really need to be able to understand that they are being asked a question and correctly respond yes or no. If you say “biscuit?” does your child indicate that they want one? If so, they should have the relevant language skills to respond to “potty?” especially if you show them a picture or an actual potty at the same time.
- Remember or follow a simple sequence of actions. It’s going to really help if your child can start to remember how toileting worked yesterday and start to recall the pattern of actions and follow it.
That’s really about it. If your child does not have any of these skills, it may be sensible to try and work on some of these first. For some children with ASD in particular, initiating requests can be very challenging. It is possible to potty train without the need to ask an adult, but it will need thinking through carefully. There is more useful information on toilet training children with ASD from the National Autistic Society here.
Is there anything extra you need to think about if your child has a speech or language difficulty?
If your child has difficulty with communication, and especially if they have difficulty with understanding and like routines, some of the following might be useful things to think about when you’re preparing to potty train your child.
- How they communicate that they need the toilet doesn’t matter, but we need to make this as easy as possible for them – many children will be able to use speech, even if they have limited language skills, and if your child usually uses speech to communicate, then it’s probably best for them to use speech in this situation too. If the word they use is not understood outside of the house, it will probably be useful to make nursery staff/ grandparents/ anyone else who has regular contact with your child aware of what the child’s word sounds like and how they indicate that they need the toilet. However, if everyone is aware of this and is reading the signs, they should be able to use speech successfully to ask for the toilet. If the child regularly uses sign or gesture to communicate, this is probably a good way to communicate in this situation too. If the child is using a picture symbol system such as PECS they can use that to ask to use the toilet. Make sure that the correct symbol is very quickly and easily accessible however!! You might want to stick it on the wall or right on the front of the child’s communication book (if it’s always with them) so that they can easily reach and grab it. And of course, most children, with or without a communication difficulty communicate their need for the toilet through body language! Often these are the clearest ways of communicating in this situation anyway, so try not to worry too much if your child’s speech isn’t perfectly clear.
- If your child finds new routines difficult, it may be useful to introduce toilet training slowly. Maybe start regularly changing nappies in the bathroom for a while to get them used to associating that room with the toilet. Then encourage them to sit regularly on the toilet, so that it is a place where they feel relaxed and comfortable. It may be useful to skip the potty stage and go straight to a toilet (with appropriate toilet seat) as this reduces the number of changes the child has to get used to. The National Autistic Society’s detailed article about toilet training also covers this.
- For a child with difficulty understanding, using pictures to help them understand the routine of toileting. You can make your own, but I have found some useful examples here and here which you can print off for free. If your child is used to using a visual timetable, use the same process they are used to. If they are not used to this, you can still use one if you think it would help! Stick the pictures up in the bathroom and each time you use the toilet, point to the pictures as you complete each activity, then help the child to look what comes next. Always complete the task in the same way and the same order as the pictures so that they understand that this is a sequence that is always the same – eg we wash hands after using the toilet, not before. Try to use the pictures to prompt the child, rather than verbal prompts if you can, to help them to become independent. Eventually they can use the picture sequence to help them when you’re not there.
What other tips have you used to help a child to understand about potty training?