Travel Tips for Road Trips with a Child with Autism

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.

Planning for Your Road Trip

When it comes to a successful drive, proper planning is key. Here are some tips on how to prepare:

  • Know your route. Map the route and identify rest-stops, parks, or other enjoyable way points along the way.
  • Schedule breaks. How long does your child sit successfully usually through car rides? Planning for frequent breaks can break up the discomfort of a long ride. Consider using breaks from the road at rest stops or gas stations as ways to get some energy out.
  • Pack a bag. What comfort items does your child enjoy? 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 and even reduce your child’s anxiety. Consider packing special treats to offer periodically throughout the trip.
  • Plan entertainment. 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.
  • Create a safety plan. This may offer some 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.

During Your Road Trip

You can’t control everything and everyone while on the road but with these tips, you can help make your trip go smoothly for the entire family:

  • Communicate with your child. The unknown can be scary. Talk with your child about the purpose of the upcoming 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.  
  • Keep your child updated. 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 must wait to get out of the car.  
  • Practice safe driving. Remember to follow the rules of the road and take your time while driving. This will help keep everyone in the car calm and help prevent any accidents on the road.

Once You Reach Your Destination

Great! We made it to paradise. Here are some tips on how to keep the positivity going on our trip:

  • Enjoy your family time together! Remember that not everything has to go perfectly. Adapt as much as possible along the way to prevent any stress.
  • Plan to limit activities. Trips can be draining so try schedule only a manageable number of activities a per day. Be sure to keep an eye on your child for any signs that they are overstimulated or tired.
  • Keep morning and bedtime routines consistent. Try to keep your routines as consistent as possible to how they usually work when at home, including opportunities for downtime and regrouping.
  • Customize the plan. Remember to keep your child’s special interests on the agenda periodically during the visit so they stay excited and engaged.

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

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