Parenting a child who has autism isn’t linear.
There are hills and valleys. Two steps forward and one step back. A skip to the left and jump back to the right.
Our family has found this to be especially true with potty training.
My 4-year-old son, Casey, has peed in the toilet consistently since right after he turned 3. He still has the occasional accident, but for the most part he does really, really well.
But it’s a different story when it comes to pooping in the toilet. Casey has struggled. He will hold it in until he can’t hold it anymore, and then he will go in his pants. It’s been very frustrating, to say the least.
Friends have made recommendations, of course. Usually, it’s something along the lines of a reward in exchange for going in the toilet: “Give him an M&M,” or, “Give him a toy car,” or, “Let him pick from a little basket of toys from the Dollar Tree.” All great ideas – for a neurotypical kid. But anyone who has a child with autism knows that the usual rewards might not be the kind of motivation their child needs.
While we’ve struggled to get Casey to sit down on the toilet to poop, we’ve also struggled to find a way to motivate him to even sit on the toilet and try.
Until this past week.
One of Casey’s favorite places has always been Target. He loves to go in, use the bathroom, walk around a little, get a cake pop from Starbucks. I usually let him pick out a little toy or coloring book, and then he helps me use the self check-out scanners. When he sits through a haircut, a trip to Target is his reward. When we go to the doctor, Target is in his future.
When I planned his Halloween costumes last year — yes, costumes, plural, because there’s no predicting what a child with special sensory needs will be able to tolerate on his body at any given time — one of the options was “Target employee.” Khakis, dress shoes and red shirt. Unfortunately, he had a meltdown before trick-or-treating and the night was a wash, but that’s a story for another time.
More recently, he’s developed a love of watching elevator and escalator videos on YouTube. You might wonder, what do these videos show? It’s literally just a POV of some guy riding up and down elevators and escalators. To me, it’s incredibly boring. To Casey, it’s the greatest thing in the world. (It’s also completely ruined my husband’s YouTube algorithm since our TV is logged into his account.)
About two weeks ago, we found a video of a cart escalator at a Target in Minnesota. Casey went wild for it. He was completely riveted by the concept of a shopping cart using an escalator alongside humans.
My husband Peter and I looked at each other and obviously had the same idea. “Buddy,” Peter said, “how would you like to go to a Target with a cart escalator?”
The closest one to our house is in West Palm Beach, across from the outlet mall on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard east of I-95. It’s about a half-hour drive to get there. But when you make a connection like that with something your child enjoys, you’ll drive anywhere to make it happen for them.
So they went. I stayed home to work and Peter took Casey up to what Casey began calling “big Target.” They rode up and down the escalator and elevators, and Casey was enchanted. In the two weeks since, they’ve made a few trips up there, occasionally driving first to Constitution Park in Tequesta before swinging by “big Target” and then heading home.
You might be wondering what this has to do with getting Casey to poop in the toilet. Here’s where it comes together.
Late last week, Casey asked if he could go to big Target after Peter came home from work. Peter said no, it was too late, but they could go to a playground closer to the house. That elicited an “Awww!” from Casey, his usual response when something isn’t going his way.
He then dropped into what we recognized as a poopy squat. The kid had to go, and he was holding it in. When this happens, we encourage him to go to the bathroom and sit on the toilet, but he usually will stand up, say, “No poopy,” and then go about playing or coloring or whatever toddler activity he was engaged in before we caught him trying to poop in his pants.
This time, Peter sighed. His eyes drifted away from Casey and a pained look came across his face. “Casey, if you go poop in the toilet, we can go to big Target,” he said, with the most reluctance I’ve ever heard from him.
I looked up at him questioningly. Really? He smiled back. We both knew it probably wasn’t going to happen, but what was the harm in trying?
I’ll tell you: It worked.
Casey stood up, said, “OK!” in the agreeable, adorable way he always does, and marched to the bathroom, beckoning Peter to follow. “Come on, Papa!”
Casey pooped in the potty, and then off to big Target they hustled. Casey was so proud of himself.
We thought maybe it was a one-off thing.
For five days in a row, Casey has pooped in the toilet with the incentive that he can go to Target in West Palm Beach and ride the escalators and elevators.
Sunday morning, we had a new twist.
Peter wanted to be home to watch the Vikings play the Giants in the NFC Wild Card game, which was scheduled to start at 4:30 p.m. We planned to spend a couple of hours at one of our favorite parks – South County Regional Park, west of Boca Raton – to tire out Casey and our puppy, Wally, and have a quiet afternoon and evening in.
But Casey woke up absolutely intent on going to big Target. Before I was out of bed, Casey had already made one trip to the bathroom. Nothing was produced, but Casey was still intent on going to his favorite place.
As we got ready to leave for the park, Casey resisted. He ran to my mom’s room and hid as we tried to rally him to go ride his scooter at the park instead of the escalators at Target. When I went into the bedroom to coax him out, he said, “I don’t want to go to park. Just big Target!”
“You haven’t pooped yet, Buddy,” I replied. “You know you have to poop in the toilet to go to big Target.”
“OK!” he said, hopping off my mom’s bed and running to her bathroom. He sat down on the toilet, gritted his teeth and – pooped. An honest to God poop, not some little plop.
With some negotiation, we went to the park and then Peter planned to take Casey to big Target. But thanks to a recommendation from my mother-in-law, Casey and Peter ended up exploring and having an amazing time at what we now called “bigger Target” – the Mall at Wellington Green, the shopping mall that isn’t even a 10-minute drive from our house.
I’m sure some of you are reading this and wondering why I felt it would be a good idea to tell the world about our pooping problems.
For the same reason I plan to write more about the challenges and triumphs we experience parenting a child with autism: Because I’ve felt very alone at many points along our short road since a diagnosis, and I want others to know they’re not alone.
We do what we have to do.
You find the thing your child loves, and you leverage it to get them to make progress toward a milestone.
You realize that one of the only things your child will eat are chicken nuggets, so you buy the ones that have a full serving of vegetables in them.
You know in your gut that your child needs more services, so you fight like hell to get them.
We do what we have to do, and it’s important for us to know we’re not alone in that fight.
Yes, parenting a child with autism may not be linear. There will be hills and valleys.
But sometimes you find an escalator to make the path just a little easier to navigate.
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