We experience life through our five senses and our brains process a massive amount of sensory information every day. For neurodivergent children (with sensory processing or autistic spectrum disorders) who cannot filter out some of the sensory information they receive, potty learning can be an overwhelming experience. So what should parents know to support children through this developmental milestone?
Following on from my previous post, Potty Training your Neurodivergent Child, I wanted to explain how parents can adjust the sensory inputs their child is experiencing to help them effectively develop toileting skills. With this support, as children grow older they can learn to adapt and become more comfortable with the sensations they may have initially struggled with.
Every child needs to develop bladder and bowel awareness as part of potty learning, but for a child with additional needs to develop continence, it’s helpful to consider how well they relate to their sensory system in order to help them to pay attention to internal bodily organs. For some children, developing awareness may be as simple as using a potty watch/timer, for others they may need an adapted environment to aid the learning process.
For example, does your child have
– increased sensitivity to sensations such as touch, balance, body position, vision, hearing, or smell and tend to avoid this kind of sensory input?
– reduced sensitivity and tend to seek out sensory input by stimming?
These different reactions can also vary, meaning you may have a child who will crave one type of sensory input but actively avoid another. Considering how your child may experience the sensations of toileting and which aspects of the process your child will find challenging, can help you to create an environment where your child feels more safe, relaxed, and comfortable.
If your child has touch sensitivities
Children with reduced sensation may not appear to notice when they have peed or pooed, but they may also find the sensation comforting or pleasant. They may also explore the sensation with playing with their faeces. Can you incorporate making Pooh Doh into the process instead? Children with increased sensation may be sensitive to the temperature or texture of the potty/toilet or the toilet floor – can you make it less hard or cold for them with a toilet seat liner, a rug or slippers? They may struggle with the sensation of poo or wee on their hands, legs or genitals or struggle with the sensation of toilet paper or wipes.
If your child has sight sensitivities
Children with reduced sensation or sensory seekers may be easily distracted by bright lights, mirrors, colourful items in the bathroom and struggle to focus on the toileting process.
Children with increased sensation may find these same stimulations overwhelming or distressing. How can you adapt the environment around them to make them more comfortable? You may be able to lower the lights at home but need to offer sunglasses when using a public bathroom.
If your child has hearing sensitivities
Children with reduced sensation may actively seek out the various sounds of the bathroom they can control and be easily distracted by dropping items in the toilet, running the tap or repeatedly flushing the toilet, playing with a hand drier, or exploring the echoes with their voice.
Children with increased sensation may struggle with one or a combination of the many sounds in a bathroom, particularly a public bathroom, such as running tap water or toilet flushes, fans or hand driers, the echoes of the tiles, the squeak of a lock or banging doors. Even the sound of wee or poo entering the toilet bowl may be overwhelming. Using ear defenders or hearing loops may help to filter out the noise, or you could add some tissue to the bowl to muffle the sound.
If your child has balance sensitivities
Children with reduced sensation may rock or stim whilst on the toilet and require additional support to be safe.
Children with increased sensation may feel unsafe on the toilet and feel secure with a footstool, or handrail when using the toilet. They may also prefer using toilet cubicles with narrow walls, rather than open spaces or those with mirrors or reflective tiles.
If your child has taste or smells sensitivities
Children with reduced sensation may actively seek out strong smells by smearing poo or playing with personal care or janitorial products. Make sure this isn’t a safety or hygiene concern for your child. Children with increased sensation may find the smells of their own or other people’s pee or poo distressing, or that of janitorial or personal care products. In public toilets, there may be automatic air fresheners or an attendant with perfume or hairspray that you have to navigate.
Whether you need to reduce or increase your child’s various sensory inputs you may find it helpful to prepare a toolkit to soothe and reduce anxiety or distract your child whilst they use the toilet. You could try fiddle toys, scents they like, music, massage, sensory jars or lights or a book or short video.
Making a sparkle jar is really easy and can be a helpful focal point for some children.
You’ve got this
As a parent you are the greatest living expert on your child’s needs, but we all need help from time to time. If you feel you would benefit from some one-to-one support from a potty learning expert, you can book a private consultation with me.