Ok first the good news. Yes, it will happen. Now the less so immediately good (but not bad) news: it takes a while.
Think about it, if you are feeling cut off from your own body, if you have a sensory system that is acutely over sensitive, if you have an amygdala (fight/flight/freeze) center of the brain that goes off like fireworks whenever confronted with anything unfamiliar…and you’re three years old and someone puts this plastic thing with a hole in it in front of you and asks you to sit over that strange plastic hole (are there monsters in there?) and relax and….
Come on. Relax? With monsters and a gaping abyss below me that I might fall into and you want me to sit over that thing? You want me to relax my bowel? But now I’m afraid so my psoas muscle, which runs through my pelvis, is all contracted so I can go into fight/flight/freeze mode – crouch, hit, protect my organs, run away…and this muscle, which is connected to my amygdala, make everything tense up down there…why are you doing this to me?
This is more or less what is going on in the mind of a young autistic kid when confronted with the standard neuro-typical ways of potty training. They can’t believe their mom, their care-giver, would make them sit over that gaping abyss where the monsters clearly live. There’s just no way it’s going to work.
The way neuro-typical kids are generally potty trained is through reward – i.e. intrinsic motivation. And of course they can see that the potty is nothing to fear because the hole is only a few inches deep. But for many young autists, the pre-frontal cortex, which governs reason, logic and emotional regulation, is locked away behind a three headed Cerberus – the over developed amygdala. So coming to that seemingly obvious conclusion that is a given for the neurotypical three years old is not in any way a given for the young autist.
Then the whole idea of rewards and punishments is alien – because again that requires the brain to have gone through the ‘Theory of Mind’ development which happens for neurotypical kids around 3 but for young autist might take some years. So let’s say your young autist did by some miracle use the potty correctly one time and you rewarded that child. They might not connect the reward with the potty and so you cant reproduce the effect – at leas not until they are much older. The result: confusion – and confusion presses that amygdala all over again and we are back in fight/flight/freeze.
Don’t take my word for it. All this information that you just read came from testimony from young adult autist looking back on their own potty training, and from my own experience with my son Rowan who finally potty trained at almost six years old (cue choirs of angles singing). Rowan himself confirmed this too.
The reason Horse Boy and Movement Method approaches work is that we have always been mentored by the population we serve, rather than thinking ‘oh we’re clever neuro-typicals, therefore we can figure out what works for people who aren’t neuro-typical.’ It’s a bit as if I, a male, wrote a book about being a woman, and a woman friend offered to help me with the manuscript, and I refused her help, saying: “I’ve got multiple graduate degrees in Women’s Studies, so I don’t need your help.” The woman friend would still say – “Yes but you’re NOT a woman, therefore no matter how well versed your theory, you still need mentorship from someone who is a woman.’
So use our potty training modules – they don’t work fast, because few things in autism world work fast, but they do work, because they were taught to us by autists themselves We have a number of potty trainings modules laid out step by step to make sure you don’t press that pesky amygdala and actually work against the potty training. Follow the steps slowly, patiently, and it’ll happen. And one day you’ll look up and your fingers will no longer be smelling slightly of…and you’ll think, wow, it happened. Amazing.
To get to our potty training modules and more click here
And remember, autism is an adventure; a beautiful adventure. Join us.