Potty training a special needs child is a lesson in futility-at least it was for me. At what point while Ryan was kicking, biting, screaming, crying and running out of the nearest door was I supposed to get him to pee on a cheerio in a potty? After having the potty thrown at me several times, I just gave up. When Ryan was initially diagnosed with Autism at the age of three, I was told that he was so severe that he would never learn to speak, use the toilet or be independent in anything. I was told to find an institution, as we would be unable to support him at home. The doctor (who I always refer to as Dr. Evil), told me that I might consider having him fit for a protective helmet as he would likely start banging his head against walls and that he would never emotionally attach to me. He would never call me mommy, and would never have a relationship of any sort with anyone. There was more but at some point I shut down as this was all disclosed to me ON THE DAY HE WAS FIRST DIAGNOSED WITH AUTISM. I had no idea what autism even was at that point. This doctor had no parental bedside manner and I left that office paralyzed, confused and feeling completely hopeless.
Some of what the doctor said to me that day remains true but a miracle happened one day when Ryan was 16. Ryan’s school does an amazing job with bathroom skills and as such, he began using the toilet when he was about 9. At times he had to be forced, he wouldn’t go on his own, but at least he started identifying the toilet for its proper use.
At 16, Ryan was still in pull-up diapers and we were eating dinner one night in our family room, which has a bathroom just off of the kitchen. Eating is Ryan’s religion. He loves it. He would eat all day and night if allowed (as evidenced by our lack of supervision this past Thanksgiving where his gluttony made him sick). Nothing can get Ryan away from the dinner table until he is told he is all done and there is no more food coming.
Ryan had half a plate still filled with food when he stood up, walked over to the bathroom, left the door open (we didn’t care) and did his business. I looked at my husband and kids in disbelief and we all froze, afraid that the tiniest sound would distract him. Ryan stood up off of the toilet when he was done and I told him to wash his hands, which he did to the best of his ability. He came back to the dinner table, sat down and continued eating. I promptly burst into tears.
I will never get to watch Ryan play baseball or soccer or win a spelling bee, but at that moment, I felt same amount of pride as if he had scored a goal or hit a home run. I mentally told Dr. Evil to go fuck himself and slept better that night than I had in years. When you have a child with special needs, every little victory is celebrated. A day without a tantrum; using a utensil properly; not getting a phone call that he bit someone, sleeping through the night for the first time at age eight. These are the home-runs, goals, touchdowns, and trophies that special needs parents hold on to. I couldn’t have been more proud of Ryan that day-that was HIS victory.
From that day on, Ryan began using the toilet independently. It was as if he just decided one day to do it and committed. There was nothing really unusual about that day leading up to it-I guess he was just ready. The truth is, that moment renewed hope in my husband and me that maybe there were other things he would someday be able to do. I had definitely given up hope for many things when it came to Ryan and he taught me that day to never give up on him. So, I never will. But, at almost 19, I am ready for him to be ready to know when to take a shower.