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Travel Tips for Children With Autism: How to Prepare for a Road Trip

July 13, 2021

By Jennifer K. Carlson, PhD

Family trips can feel like a daunting task with children, especially for children with developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Parents may ask themselves, how can we make it through a long drive? Use these tips to help you prepare for your next family road trip.

Tips on How to Prepare for Your Trip

The following tips may help you plan for a successful drive: 

  • How long does your child sit successfully usually through car rides?Planning for frequent breaks can break up the discomfort of a long ride. 
  • Map the route and identify rest-stops, parks, or other enjoyable way points along the way.  
  • Consider using breaks from the road as ways to get some energy out. 
  • What comfort items does your child enjoy? Having these items in the car can reduce anxiety.
  • What car-friendly toys, games, and activities can you plan to be available in the car? Breaking out a different activity option periodically during the drive can help to reduce boredom. 
  • The unknown can be scary. What does your child know about the upcoming trip? Talk with your child about the purpose of the trip, where you are going, how long it will take, and the stops along the way. Keep it positive as something to look forward to. Make it clear why you’re taking this trip together. Social Stories are a great way to present this information clearly and with visuals. Here are some tips for creating a Social Story 
  • Find a way to show your child how long until the next break or to the destination. Timers, moving a picture along a drawn map, or map phone/tablet apps can be effective at showing your child the progress of the drive and how much longer they have to wait to get out of the car.  
  • Pack lots of preferred snacks and drinks!  It’s always difficult to predict what will be available along the way, and this can promote control over healthy choices.  
  • Consider packing special treats to offer periodically throughout the trip. 

Safety Considerations

  • Create a safety plan for peace of mind in the event your child wanders away. Making a handout with identification, contact information, and need-to-know information about how to best communicate with your child can be a handy tool to give others in an emergency moment. 
  • Additional Driving Safety Tips  

Tips Once You Reach Your Destination

Great! We made it to paradise. What can I do to keep this positivity going on our trip? 

  • Enjoy your family time together! 
  • Plan to limit activities to a manageable number per day. 
  • Keep morning and bedtime routines as consistent as possible to how they usually work when at home.  
  • Consider keeping consistent opportunities for downtime and regrouping. 
  • Keep your child’s special interests on the agenda periodically during the visit.  
  • For trips to Chicago and other cities, Infiniteach has partnered with many local tourism sites to develop autism friendly support apps. 

Dr. Carlson is a pediatric psychologist in the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and the Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, and an assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. 

Learn About Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics at Lurie Children's