Keeping Your Child Happy on Road Trips | Organization for Autism Research

How To

Family vacations that involve a road trip can often excite more anxiety than anticipation. And that may be particularly true for families with a child who has autism. An inability to adapt to change and new things can make road trips harder for children with autism, but it doesn’t have to be that way. These suggestions can make your road trips easier and more fun for everyone.

Prepare for the Road046-track-graphic-icon

Prepare for the trip in advance:

  • Use a behind-the-seat organizer to store your child’s belongings. If this is within your child’s reach, then this will enable you to focus on your driving and maintain an organized car.
  • Take frequent rest stops at designated rest areas off interstate highways or at gas stations. Allow your child to run around outside if it is safe to do so. If your child needs a visual cue to know when the next stop will be, bring along a timer and set it for 60 minutes. This way, your child knows that when the timer goes off, he or she will be able to get out of the car. Alternately, you can ask an older child to time the interval on the clock in the car and then pull the car over for a break at the intended time.
  • If you know your child enjoys playgrounds, search for playgrounds along your route in advance. Tell your child that the next stop will be at a playground so he or she will have something to look forward to.
  • Try to plan your trip around times of the day that are routine nap times or bed times. You may choose to start your trip at night when your child normally goes to sleep. This will (hopefully) ensure your child will be asleep for a good portion of the ride.
  • Get a map and draw a line along your route. Show your child each city and state you are passing through. Use a line to show your child where you are “now” and where you need to drive before you get to your final destination.
  • If your child has an oversensitivity to sound, take a look at this transcript from the National Public Radio weekly show, Car Talk. Hosts Ray and Tom Magliozzi (otherwise known as Click & Clack) discuss cost-effective options for minimizing road noises that can be painful to children with autism.
Occupied and Happy

While you are on the trip, keep your child occupied and happy:

  • Make customized activity bags for each child. If the trip is long, give your child a couple of items at a time so that the novelty does not wear off shortly after the trip begins. Have some old as well as new toys and activities in each bag. Possibilities include a new coloring book, hand-held games like ball mazes or Rubik’s cubes, interactive books (with flaps, hidden pictures, or stickers), Legos, or a soft squeeze ball.
  • Pre-load an iPad with old and new games for single or multiplayers and kid-friendly television shows and movies.
  • Bring headphones with a variety of music, including calm instrumental songs for relaxation, kid-friendly tunes, and any other favorites.
Games to Make Time Fly ByAsset 3@2x

Initiate creative games using the things you see along the road:

  • Bingo: before your trip, prepare a Bingo sheet using pictures or words of things frequently seen on the road.
  • Alphabet game: take turns finding things that start with a designated letter until you get through the entire alphabet.
  • License plate game: write down all the license plates you see from different states and see how many you can find by the end of your trip.

See for more car game ideas that you can modify for your child’s age and developmental level.

Helping Your Child Stay Calm

The following items can promote calmness and relaxation:

  • Vibrating massagers
  • Weighted lap pad, vest, or blanket
  • Hard candy (if this does not pose a safety hazard for your child)
  • Vibrating bean bags or teethers if your child needs additional oral stimulation

Consult with your child’s occupational therapist for more specific sensory strategies to use.

A Few More Handy Items

You will be happy you brought these the minute you need them:

  • Hand sanitizer
  • Flushable wipes
  • Extra batteries and chargers
  • Changes of clothing in case of accidents
  • Plastic bags
  • Medicine for nausea or other physical ailments
  • Extra headphones

Remember to be realistic. Do not expect your child to sit placidly in a car seat for a 15-hour drive. Even with all of these preventative strategies to entertain your child, things happen. Consider your child’s needs and set realistic goals for how far you’ll travel each day. Take extra time if needed and break the trip up if possible. Plan to spend the night in a hotel, or take the scenic route and turn it into a mini-vacation where your family can enjoy a few sights along the way. Trying to rush travel can lead to more stress and increases the chances for something to go wrong or for you to forget something. Take some deep breaths, relax, and listen to some soft music to help you unwind, especially if you get caught in a traffic jam. Happy and safe travels!

This article was excerpted and revised from OAR’s Life Journey through Autism: A Guide for Military Families and the Operation Autism website.

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