Toilet Talk

As youngsters with autism grow into teens and young adults, they often retain some of the habits they learned as toddlers. For example, it is socially acceptable for a three-year-old to say, “Go pee-pee?” or “Go tinkle?” But it can raise eyebrows if a boy blurts out those phrases at school or while playing on a soccer team.

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Because individuals with autism are concrete thinkers and are often resistant to change, it is a good idea to choose words and phrases carefully when they are young. So, it might be wise to start using phrases like, “Bathroom, please” even with toddlers.

But, what steps can you take if your friend with autism is a teen and is stuck on the inappropriate, childish phrases? Every person responds to different strategies for shaping appropriate behaviors, but you probably want to develop a pro-active plan rather than reacting critically. Few teens respond well to words like “I’ve told you not to say that!” or “Don’t say pee-pee again.” Consider these steps when developing a strategy to teach new habits.
1. First, carefully select a phrase so you can help your youngster learn what words to use. Think about phrases that are appropriate for school, baseball team, and even a job 20 years from now. For example, consider teaching him to say quietly, “Excuse me, please,” or “Can you tell me where the bathroom is?” or “I’ll be back in a minute.”
2. When helping shape this new habit, you might want to consider introducing the new concept with a brief comment about growing up. Then use some visual cues to get your point across. For example, you could write the words “go tinkle” on a piece of paper, then draw a big red “X” across that phrase. You might even have the youngster crumple the paper up and throw it in the trash. Then say something like, “You are a young man who plays on a soccer team and goes to school. Now that you are growing up, you want to say, ‘Excuse me, I’m going to the bathroom.”
3. Write that new phrase on an index card that can be folded and put in his pocket or can be taped on the bathroom mirror. Then practice the new phrase by role-playing different situations at school and at home. Sometimes you play the part of the teacher or coach, and sometimes you play the part of the student and let your youngster play the part of the teacher or the coach.
4. Be patient and positive. Without making too big a deal of it, give consistent praise privately for using the new phrase until it becomes a new habit.

We welcome your input about updating childish phrases. Share challenges and ideas based on your experiences or intuition. Just click on the comments button or send an e-mail to

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. Send email to And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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