Autistic Children in Diapers

Ella Rain
Stack of diapers

Successful potty training is a major milestone for young children, and as many parents know, the skill can be challenging to master. Kids who have pervasive developmental disorders may not reach typical milestones as quickly as typical children do. Sometimes, autistic children use diapers for many years.

Potty Training and Autism

Parents across the board often have difficulty potty training their children, and parents who have children with developmental delays often face additional challenges that make it necessary to keep their kids in diapers longer than they would like. Autistic children in diapers can experience delays in potty training for a number of reasons.

  • Communication problems can make it difficult for young kids with autism to tell others when they need to use the restroom.
  • Sensory problems can mount when dealing with bowel movements. In addition, some children on the spectrum may put their hands in their diapers for sensory input, which can make using a diaper rewarding for the child.
  • Developmental delay can interfere with the ability to recognize when to use the bathroom.
  • Poor motor skills can interfere with the child's ability to pull pants up or down, which can make getting to the toilet in time difficult.

Problems Associated with Autistic Children in Diapers

Failure to potty train can lead to problems, including social and health woes. Reasons for getting autistic children out of diapers as quickly as possible mount when you consider the complications that can occur.

Social Problems

The inability to potty train can lead to social problems that have an impact on children and their parents. Young children may not be allowed to participate in some programs if they are not trained to use the bathroom. Wearing diapers at age three, four or older can lead to ridicule, focused both on the child and on the parents.

In some cases, parents of autistic children in diapers may avoid going out in public with their kids. This can lead to immense feelings of isolation, and the limitations can be very disruptive.

Health Problems

Social problems can take their toll, but health problems associated with diapering older children can be downright frightening. Complications can occur for a number of different reasons.

  • Using fecal matter for sensory input is messy, and it can be hazardous to a person's health. A child may smear excrement on walls, furniture and on himself. This can lead to illness if the material is ingested.
  • On the other hand, some children may feel discomfort passing stool, and may hold bowel movements. This is a serious condition, called encopresis, that can lead to health problems.
  • A child who wears diapers can develop a rash, and the problem can stem from irritation caused by exposure to urine and fecal matter. Yeast infection can cause diaper rash as well.

Help for Autistic Kids in Diapers

There are ways to deal with problems associated with autistic children in diapers.

  • Use pictures to help facilitate communication. A child can use the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) to alert others that it is time to use the restroom. Do2Learn has free printable cards for toilet training you can use.
  • Offer sensory integration activities regularly that provide the input your child may be seeking. Play Doh, clay, mud and hand washing are among the countless activities that can substitute the undesired behavior.
  • Add toilet training to your child's daily routine, even if he or she is still using diapers. This cues your child to make a connection with using the toilet. Make sure to check for readiness, and avoid forcing your child to sit on the toilet.
  • Work with your child's occupational therapist to develop activities that can improve fine motor skills.

It is always important to discuss difficulties with toilet training with your child's pediatrician and the treatment team. Together, you can develop a plan of action suitable for your child. You may find that your child can give up diapers, with guidance.

The Spectrum of Potty Training

Autism is a spectrum disorder, and there is a vast difference in abilities from one end of the spectrum to the other. Children with severe autism may never learn how to use the toilet because they lack the cognitive and motor skills necessary to complete the task. In many cases, children with autism do pass potty training over time.

Keep in mind that autism is a developmental delay, and you can expect progress to go slower for kids on the spectrum. A typical child may master using the toilet at the age of two or three, while an autistic child may master the skill at age five or six; others may make even slower progress.

Autistic Children in Diapers