naked and $75
20 May 2002

My son peed on the floor yesterday. I was so pleased.

It’s all about the potty, you see. Last July, for two bewitching days, Damian used the potty willingly and gladly. It was even his idea. We were thrilled. We thought that was the beginning.

It wasn’t.

I think it was our fault. We did what I’d heard you’re supposed to do: we sat him down on the potty and waited for him to pee. We stayed by him and read Harold and the Purple Crayon, brought him sippy cups filled with juice (juice turns to urine, you see, rewarding an extended sit on the potty), we even arranged a warm throw over his knees to keep him cozy during the long waits. A couple of times he did pee, but it was more chance than anything else. By the time the piss was in progress, we’d all forgotten what we were doing there and the main event went unnoticed under the distraction of book and blanket.

After a week or so, if you asked him "Do you want to sit on the potty?", he’d respond with a vehement "No!" and then, for good measure, run out of the room. I think he’d gotten bored. His little butt probably hurt too; that hard plastic looks uncomfortable.

Okay, let’s try another approach. But what? Part of the problem, I think, is that it’s all well and good to have a kid sit on a pot, but that’s not how you actually use the thing. You go about your business, pretty much ignoring your body until your body lets you know: "Hey you up there! Bladder down here! About to burst a geyser. Do something! Stat!" So you head to the nearest bathroom or bush, make your bladder happy, and that’s that for an hour or two (or fifteen minutes, if you’re pregnant). So simple. Even a cat, with its brain the size of a walnut, learns to use its litter box. Surely we can teach our child how to use the potty, right?

But how do you teach a child to know what that full feeling means? How do you teach her to act on it? And if he’s got sensory issues and communication issues, how do you teach him to pay enough attention to his body, to understand the signal and then to communicate his need? That’s a tall order for a boy who won’t tell you that his pants are sopping wet when he’s been sitting quietly in his car seat for ten minutes, getting progressively colder and presumably more uncomfortable. But kids develop. Most high functioning autistic children do learn to use the potty. Damian would too. Right?

We took potty-for-kids books out of the library. We showed him videotapes. We spent time with him in the bathroom, illustrating and talking through the process. We told him how much more comfortable he’d be when he switched from diapers to underpants. We asked if he wanted to use the potty. "No!" he’d say, or sometimes "I’ll use the potty tomorrow." Tomorrow, of course, he’d say no again. We decided to back off, stop pushing. If you force a child into potty training before he’s ready, you can create a lifelong aversion and god knows what else. This is Freudian stuff, this elimination game. But it’s hard when your now-four-year-old won’t attempt what three year olds – even two year olds – are doing with ease all around him. And he can’t go to kindergarten in diapers. And it feels like something he should be able to master, this life lesson. It feels like time.

What to do? Sit him on the potty every hour on the hour, hoping to catch the perfect moment, the lucky stream, to somehow link that in his mind with this mysterious thing known as bladder control? Impractical given his labyrinthine schedule, not to mention his dogged unwillingness.

Heidi suggested putting him in underpants, letting him feel the wet and get the motivation from that. Good idea, makes a lot of sense, but… this kid won’t even let us put pull-ups on him (they’re underpants-shaped diapers). How can we get him into underpants before he’s ready? And what if he doesn’t complain even when he’s soaking? (And he won't. I can guarantee it.)

Then there’s the Naked and $75 method. You let a kid run around bare assed, let him whizz on the floor (the $75 is the cost of cleaning the carpet), let him figure the whole thing out on his own. When you can see the actual event, you can put together "Oh, that pressure in my groin" with "Oh, I peed!" and you’re halfway there. Only one problem: my son the sensory defensive won’t allow us to remove his pants unless he’s about to step into the bath, or for the brief moment it takes to change that goddamned diaper.

But the Naked and $75 method has a lot going for it. Damian’s a visual learner – actually seeing his pænis in action could help tremendously. Thus began Operation Pants-Off. At least once a day, when we change his diaper, we leave it off. We hang out together, Damian on the changing table, Mommy or Daddy on the stool, chatting and playing and shooting the (bare-assed) breeze. The first time, he asked for his diaper and pants every couple of minutes. We’d say yes and keep talking/playing/being silly until he sounded truly impatient. But he’s become more and more forgiving over time. Friday he and I spent half an hour playing with Mousey and Purple Frog; Damian was perfectly content to be half dressed until it was time to get down off the changing table. Then he insisted. "Put on my new diaper! Put on my pants!" "Oh, did I forget? Sorry about that." And I helped him get dressed, keeping my smile to myself.

Yesterday was a little different. Damian was playing on the floor of his room so I sat down and changed his diaper right there. We do that sometimes. But this time I pulled his pants all the way off even though I didn’t need to. He lay with his legs slung over my lap, animating his mice and building elaborate Duplo cars. Eventually he sat up. He asked me to put his diaper on. I deflected, Dan distracted. Damian forgot to ask again. Before long, he was up and running, off chasing some new idea, bare little butt and all.

Then came the Moment of Truth. About half an hour into the Great Bare Butt Experiment, Damian came up to me. His hand cupped under his pænis. His voice urgent: "Put my diaper on!"

"Damian, do you have to pee?"

"No, I don't!"

He ran off.

Dan found him a few moments later in his room, staring down at a puddle of urine. So of course we congratulated him.

Seriously, it was a huge step, bigger than I’d expected. He had obviously felt the urge to pee and expressed that need. He thought of diaper instead of potty, but hey, that’s understandable, it's been status quo for four years now. We said next time he can go to the potty or tell us he needs to pee and we’ll bring him there – or bring the potty to him (we wanted to make it as easy as possible), but that he got the right idea.

I was thrilled, the kind of thrill that makes you want to hold yourself and do a silly little jig. I restrained myself. Sort of. I simply hugged Dan and went off to do some work.

Time passed. Not too much time, just enough for Damian’s bladder to get full again. Or so we thought. Neither of us remember exactly what happened, whether Damian said something about pee or potty or if it was just that he was acting like it, but he sat on the potty and played with a take-apart truck with Dan, assembling it with a battery operated screwdriver. Mechanic at work. Pee-free mechanic.

So they got up and went off to play. About ten minutes later, Dan heard the sound of liquid being poured. He went into the bathroom to investigate and found Damian dumping urine from his potty insert into the toilet.

Let’s run through that again, step by step: Damian had sensed a pee coming on, gone to the bathroom, sat down on the potty, peed, gotten up, opened the toilet lid, and lifted the pot from potty to toilet. All by himself. With no prompting, hell, no adult supervision at all. The last time he’d peed in the potty at all was ten months ago. And now he’s got the whole process down pat? Pinch me, I think I must be dreaming a grown up boy.

We’re not done yet. I had to trick his pants off again today, and we still don’t know how to transition from diaper to underpants. And then there’s the whole poop issue. But today, not too long after he’d once again gone bare bottomed, Damian came up to me and said, "I think I’m feeling like peeing." And he did.

Me, I think I’m feeling like cheering. Toilet training was this huge, impossible hurdle. Or so it seemed. I should have trusted Damian more. His body awareness needed to mature enough for him to know what to do, that’s all.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yeah. Sure. Simple.

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