Toilet Training and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)


Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often prefer structured routine in their life. It is important to understand child’s level of awareness, strengths and challenges before starting toilet training. Most of the times children with ASD or Developmental Delay have sensory issues and poor motor planning skills causing too much of difficulties while understanding and carrying out this essential and unavoidable life-skill task.

Parents are advised to carefully identify and understand the indicators or signs of “good time to start” toilet training of their child. Usually, children display different behavioural patterns such as being fidgety or distracted when they are wet. They may show gestures of discomfort. Sometimes children also express their concerns by pointing towards their nappies. This is a strong indicator that child has developed awareness about wee and poo.

Children with tactile defensiveness might display greater sensitivity towards wet or soiled nappies, however, those with tactile hyposensitivity might not have awareness of wetness, being soiled or when they started/finished weeing or pooing.

Developing a toileting routine can be an insurmountable problem which can cause a lot of frustration to both parents and the child. Changing routine from wearing diapers or nappies to using the potty or going to toilet is a challenge for every toddler or a very young person, however, small but consistent steps towards this ultimate goal can make child independent in toilet training. Due to lack of social motivation children with Autism may not demonstrate any interest or inclination to use the toilet. Moreover, sensory issues such as a sound of the flush, toilet lighting, or the sound of toilet extractor fan can cause anxiety among children.

Toilet training tips for toddlers or very

Infant development: Birth to 3 months

An infant’s physical development is the source of pride and happiness. Each step of developmental milestone, from rolling to sitting followed with standing to walking brings child one step nearer to his own physical and mental independence.  As the child grows he becomes much more alert and responsive. Apart from sleeping, crying, taking the feed and filling diapers, he begins to move his body smoothly.

For infants’ motor development, various activities are manifestations of early development. By end of one and a half months, the child develops better coordination especially in getting the hand to his mouth and recognising mother’s touch. During this time baby’s brain generate millions of neurones every day causing body’s development at the phenomenal rate. He receives information through all the senses which help him to learn and grow.

During this period, he moves his head side to side while lying on his stomach. And keeps his fists tight. He may flop head backwards if unsupported since head and neck control are not yet achieved milestones. He explores his hands and brings them to the mouth for sucking. He uses different sensory systems such as vision, touch (tactile), auditory to explore the environment around them.

Primary reflexes like sucking and rooting are present since birth which help a child in taking mothers feed. In simple terms, these reflexes are already programmed in child’s brain system and assist him in breastfeeding. They are usually present for -4 months and then disappear and gradually feeding becomes voluntary control.

More reflex (Arms open outward on being tilted backwards) is commonly seen among children of 0-3 months. This reaction to reflex means that child’s balance and movement sense are developing well. Moreover, being able to hold head up when lying on tummy tells about functioning of the vestibular system (the sensory system responsible for maintaining our relationship with gravity). This sense gives us information where our head and body are in space. Due to this sense, the baby is able to roll, sit, stand and walk well.

Emotional Security has major role every newborn's life since it establishes expressive protection, trust and acquaintance with mother or caregiver. After delivery, child’s first bodily contact with his mother or caretaker has great influence on child’s body system for rest of his life. After contact, the brain should interpret ate the sensations correctly and appropriately in order to form the first emotional attachment. Sometimes, it is also called as mother-infant bond. This bond is essential for the physical and mental development of the baby. This bonding later helps in developing body image and body awareness. It also provides a sense of himself as the physical body. 

Tactile (Touch)The sense of touch relates to Tactile System. We (children and adults) are nourished, calmed and attached to mother or caregivers (bonding) through touch. This is considered as the first language of communication. An infant and mother completely depend on touch until language, cognitive skills are matured and other developmental milestones are not achieved.

The tactile system starts developing since 5th week of pregnancy, supports child to influence recognise different types of touch sensations as he grows. It has very important on newborn for the rest of his life. 

Functionally, this system supports in two important aspects, sucking and establishing emotional security. It comforts baby in sucking, chewing and swallowing food. Children who have difficulties in sucking may face challenges in eating different textures of food later in their lives.

Vision (Seeing)At birth babies, may look at highly contrasting targets, however, their abilities develop much later to distinguish between two images. Their primary focus is on objects 8-10 inches from their face. During the first-month child’s eyes work in conjugation and vision improves rapidly. Infants begin to follow moving objects with their eyes and reach to things at around 3 months. Sometimes their eyes may appear to cross or wander but this is normal since eye coordination is still not well developed.

Auditory (Hearing)A month-old child startles to loud sounds and smiles when spoken to. He responds to mother’s voice and quiets if crying. By this time, he may make pleasurable sounds such as cooing. As the child progresses to 2-4 months, he starts moving eyes in direction of sounds and responds to changes in voice tone of known people. He starts expressing displeasure and excitement. He may coo in response to face to face contact.

Gustatory and Olfactory (Taste and Smell)Babies orients to a smell of their mothers breastfeed. They display preference for pleasant smells and displeasure for pungent smells such as spoiled food

Activities for Development of Senses:

  • ·   Baby’s tummy time is essential as it helps in colic movement and helps core muscles to strengthen.
  • ·        Rocking, swaying and baby helps to promote vestibular sense.
  • ·        Post-delivery skin-to-skin contact is important.
  • ·        Daily massage and sponge play important role in child’s growth and development
  • ·        Maintain hygiene
  • ·        Talk to baby softly and gently.
  • ·        Keep the environment clean, and quiet to support his sleeping well.

What is A Sensory Diet?


A sensory diet is a carefully designed, personalised activity plan that provides sensory input to a child or adult who needs to stay focused and organised throughout the day (Occupational Therapist Patricia Wilbarger). It is developed by an Occupational Therapist specifically according to person’s sensory needs and abilities. It is developed to achieve particular goals considering child’s preferences, limitations, and available resources.

For example, a child having touch sensitivities will be given a sensory diet of activities which will have a calming effect since they support oversensitive children to decrease hypersensitivity towards sensory stimulation.Fast light- touch sensations increase arousal levels whereas slow sensations have calming effects (Schaaf and Roley, 2001).
Activities such as deep pressure massage, pushing-pulling, sucking hard candy or fruit, hand push-ups, rocking, swinging, running, obstacle courses are some of the generalised examples.

Heavy work (movement against resistance or weight) activities provide proprioceptive input. It helps to regulate arousal levels both the ways meaning in calming the child over-aroused child and stimulating the under-aroused child. 

Sensory Diet is similar to the nutritional diet of the human body. As food and water are basic requirements for body’s survival as well as functioning, similarly sensory diet is essential for reaching, maintaining and improving child’s ideal (optimal) level of alertness. The aim of sensory diet is to support the child in becoming more focused, organised, adaptable and skilful. It helps the child to perform a meaningful task in a successful manner.

A child with low arousal (under-aroused) levels needs alerting activities, whereas a child with high arousal (over-aroused) levels requires calming activities. Due to sensory reactivity or modulation issues, a child may have poor self-regulation and emotional regulation skills (Schaaf & Roley, 2001). Personalised sensory diet helps to improve attention span and concentration levels hence improving the quality of life and academic achievement.

According to the founder of Sensory Integration Approach, Dr A Jean Ayres (1972), the child should be actively engaged in activity or therapy session, and sensory experiences should be matched with a “just right” challenge that requires the child to give an adaptive response. For example, a child with hyperactivity and impulsivity can be given calming activities such as pushing the wheelbarrow or counted chair push ups as a movement break depending on his level of hyperactivity, age, and physique

Children with Autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), Developmental Delay have difficulties in sensory integration and praxis deficits causing problems in reading writing, copying from the blackboard, listening and understanding instructions in the classroom. Minimal to moderate noise, an odour of different environmental objects, visual sensitivities towards fluorescent light are some of the examples that do not bother a typically developing child while working or sleeping. This happens since child’s body “tunes itself automatically” and gets adapted to environmental demands. However, in an atypically developing child “tuning” component does not work well, causing the child to struggle at each step and every moment since his body has to “tune itself manually” to get adapted to environmental demands.

Due to slow information processing, any instruction or command given will take the time to process the information and then respond. The child will answer correctly to what has been asked, however, it may take a little time and hence person has to be patient.

The purpose of the sensory diet is to provide sensory “tune ups” throughout the day so that child keeps on getting input needed for information processing correctly. The activities recommended in a plan should have long lasting effect on behaviour as diet is the group of alerting, organising and calming tasks.

The child with sensory integration dysfunction needs an individualised diet of tactile, vestibular, auditory and proprioceptive nourishment that means all the activities should be based on these three sensory systems. Careful planning is the key to perfect sensory diet.

  What is Sensory Integration?       

As first described by Ayres (1972), sensory integration is defined as “the organisation of sensory information for use” (p.1). It is a neurological process that enables us to make sense of our world by receiving, registering, modulating, organising, and interpreting information that comes to our brains from our senses.

Researchers and clinicians have explored many aspects of sensory integration in a variety of populations including typically developing children, children with learning disabilities, Autism, Aspergers, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

Recently Ayres Sensory Integration© trademark denotes the adherence to the core principles of Ayres original theoretical framework. This copyright distinguishes it from other often applied clinical practices.  Mailloux, Roley, and Glennon (2007) have been working on Ayres Sensory Integration Fidelity tool which is correlated to trademark.

Occupational Therapist's Role in Planning Sensory Diet:

Sensory Diets are planned by Occupational Therapy practitioners who use sensory integration therapy for intervention purpose. They are mostly trained in Sensory Integration which enables them to work precisely with children and adults having mental health issues. Due to the better understanding of child’s sensory processing difficulties and requirements they can formulate reliable and achievable goals along with intervention strategies. All the activities are aimed at enhancing the child’s ability to participate in the day to day chores within the school, home and community.


Referral: Occupational therapist receives a referral from  GP,  SENCO/ head teacher depending on Borough as each borough has different systems.On getting the referral, OT  communicates to family and makes observations from SI point of view.
OT efforts to discover child's strengths and areas of weaknesses as he assesses sensory challenges (e.g.- touch, smell, vision, movement, hearing) and motor difficulties such as  poor body awareness, handwriting difficulties, right and left discrimination and then  plans  activities according to child’s needs and abilities on discussion with child, parents or caregivers following the client-centred approach.

Comprehensive Assessment : The assessment and information gathering involves taking histories, structured interviews. The main sensory integration assessment involves touch, movement, sight, hearing, smell, pressure, and taste. Along with these areas, behaviour, body awareness, motor coordination, learning in a classroom, attention, emotional liability is also assessed within different settings. 
Sensory Checklists: Occupational Therapists carry out clinical observations in structured and unstructured environments, follow sensory checklists and  use the standardised assessment tool called as Sensory Integration Praxis Test (SIPT), SPM, and Sensory Profile. The OT should be trained and certified to administer SIPT assessment.

Education: Educates child and family about sensory Diet plan and how it works.

Setting Goals and Outcome Identification: Therapist sets achievable, flexible and systematic goals for the child. He selects and schedules activities according to child’s abilities and deficits. Therapist set’s appropriate goals which are compatible with family’s beliefs, ethics and religion. They should work well within a family routine.

Activities Selection & Sensory Diet Planning: Activities are planned in correlation with goals. Mainly activities involving three sensory systems - tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive are chosen since they are baseline systems for all behaviours. For example, child doesn’t like to be touched or hair washed, happens due to deficits in touch system, likes too much of movement or rocking happens due to deficits in vestibular system (sensory seekers), lacks body awareness, happens due to proprioceptive difficulties or is a picky eater happens due to oral hypersensitivities.So the activities are planned depending on sensory system deficits and careful planning is the key to sensory diet.

Follow-up: After a period of time therapist re-analyses effectiveness of intervention Plan. Activities are changed as the child able to accomplish the "just right" challenge. Activity modification and task gradation while measuring the outcome of the intervention is an important part of therapy plan. 

Video Description Credit: Unique Prints