Road Trip Tips for Families with Autism

Top Road Trip Tips for Families with autism

Does riding in the car with your family feel more like punishment and less like quality time?  I’ve created a list of the best road trip tips for families with autism so you can enjoy the journey a bit more.

As a Midwesterner with four Disney-obsessed kids, we have made the trek to Florida on multiple occasions and learned how to navigate long trips over the years.  Our tips did not come easily-  they come from experiences with cross-country travel!

Learn from our mistakes, so your family doesn’t have to make them!  Follow these road trip tips for families with autism to improve the experience of long car rides with kids.

While all recommendations are my own, this post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission if you make a purchase using the link.

top road trip tips for families with autism

Safety First

First of all, ensure that you can get your children to your vacation destination safely, even by mountain roads.  Prepare a safety kit by packing water, snacks, a first aid kit, a travel charger for your cell phone, blankets, a flashlight with a  spare battery, flares, and jumper cables.

Are your children young enough to be in car seats?  Car seat safety is especially relevant to families with children under nine years old.

One of the biggest road trip tips for families with autism is to make sure that you comply with all laws.  Install all car seats properly before leaving your trip by visiting a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST)

What about sleep?

Do you know what a day without a nap does to your toddler?  Sleep deprivation of your kiddo can also cause several issues in their mommies and daddies too.  All drivers should rest up in the days before embarking on this drive.

If you can book a hotel along the way and avoid driving at night when tired, consider that option.  If you don’t want to pay out of pocket, you have options.  Most major hotel chains will give you a “free night” if you get their credit card.  You can also consider using travel credit cards to generate points for free stays.

How can you entertain the kids without breaking the bank?

Do your children have toys that are hiding under their dusty bed?   Peruse the floor of your children’s closets for those forgotten goodies.  Pull those toys out of their wardrobe, clean them up, and stash them away for the car ride.  It will be like a brand new toy!

Are you an organized mama who donates or sells every item as it loses usefulness?  Hit a dollar store to find toys, books, and coloring equipment to bring out every couple of hours on the road trip.  New toys will entertain the kids, and you can reward them for good behavior.  It’s a win-win for parents!

Embrace electronics

Limiting screen time is an essential buzzword in our tech-savvy world, but a long road trip is not the time to prevent technology entirely.   If you’re an autism parent, you know that tablets can be your saving grace.

Therefore, iPads and car TVs will limit boredom, but “mommy guilt” always makes me try to avoid turning our children into little techno-boppers.  I find that some decent educational apps (like Prodigy) assuage my tremendous mom guilt!  We also recommend books on tape (or audible) to keep the family entertained.

What about rest stops?

For families (like us!) with multiple children to toilet or diaper at the rest stops, have a plan.  We usually send the bigger kids in with my husband, and I tackle those who need a change.    If your child needs assistance with toileting, dividing and conquering is our best bet!

We encourage our kiddos to play hard during these breaks, so the car ride feels a bit less cooped up. I use our breaks as a time to snuggle or explore sensory demands, as well.

Burning your kids’ energy requires proper strategizing, but it always improves our mood when it goes according to plan.  Arrange a picnic at a wooded rest stop, locate a Chipotle near a playground, or find a Panera next to a local park.   Help your children “shake their willies out,” feed your family, and minimize break time.

Is your trip in the middle of winter?  Then consider letting them loose in a mall indoor playground or a McDonald’s play place.  Make sure you have lots of hand sanitizer.  I am always terrified I will get them sick for the first day of vacation.

If you’re like me and want to avoid the potential for illness, try to promote their activity in other ways.  Encourage your kids to use the restroom and run themselves silly in snowboots while another adult fetches gas.  You want to decrease the length of time at stops and get your kiddos to expend energy.

road trip, little tikes car, toddler boy smiling

Snack Attack

Pack spill-proof snack canisters for your little ones.  I prefer the 360-degree, BPA-free spill-resistant cups to juice boxes to cut sticky messes and reduce our carbon footprint.  We bring apples, water bottles, and assorted nuts to stave off hunger attacks.  I order nut and fruit packed Lara Bars, organic Turkey Pepperoni sticks, prepackaged olives, Veggie Straws, and the fluffy cheddar deliciousness known as Pirate’s Booty.

almonds on saucer

For your road trip and arrival at your destination, Ziploc bags are magical.  While the hippie in me dislikes their wasteful nature, individual bags allow financial savings by portioning out snacks or divvying up that highly coveted dessert.  Zipped bags minimize the potential for mess and odor by containing biohazardous diapers and double as a puke bucket.

What if you’re a breastfeeding mother?

For breastfeeding mothers who are pumping en route, you have a couple of options:

    1. wear a strapless pumping bra
    2. Fremie concealable collection cups improve the ease of pumping.

Consider pumping in the car while your partner drives, particularly if you need to use the restroom or get out at the next stopping point.  Encourage your partner to “tag in” and feed the baby at rest stops. If you are modest, use a nursing cover for ease of pumping in the car.

person carrying baby on arms

Furthermore, enjoy your snuggling and breastfeeding time during rest stops.  Try to stick closely to your usual nursing routine.  It is important to make sure that you’re drinking lots of fluid to promote milk supply.

Finally, make sure that you are stretching your legs to keep your circulation moving on your frequent breaks.  Postpartum moms are at risk for blood clots, so walk often at rest stops!

Best Sensory Road Trip Tips for Families with Autism

We rounded up our favorite sensory-friendly play, fidget toys, chewelry,  and weighed blanks in our Typically Twitterpated Amazon Store.  Many are appropriate to bring on a road trip.  Every child is different, but for us to have a successful road trip we make a general plan using a visual schedule or storyboard and try to stick to it.  It can be super basic, but it’s important to outline a plan for your child’s visual schedule.

First screen time, then snack and drink.

The snacks we provide are the same as his favorite at home snacks.  We bring his favorite toys, blanket, and clothes that have proven to be comfortable.  It is imperative on long trips that we schedule physical activity into our day.  The weighted blanket is helpful for late afternoon and early evening issues.  Traveling with a kid with special needs does not mean we are unable to drive long distances, it means we need to plan more.

Road trip tips for families with kids, cross country road trips, Disney world road trips

Final Travel Tips for Families with Autism

Be patient with yourself, your spouse, and your children.  Flexibility matters!  You may have a plan, but try not to become too rigidly attached to it. When using the visual schedule, try to use only activities that you can guarantee will occur next.  My autistic son gets distressed if I change our plans.

Children will have potty accidents, juice spills, and emergency stops that may extend the length of an already long journey.  Just remember that vacation starts the second you put your house and daily life in the rearview mirror.  Try to enjoy this bonding time and relax!

Photo by Joshua Hibbert on Unsplash

What are your favorite cross-country road trip tips for families with autism? Share your comments below!

We are currently feeling our friends over at Town & Tourist’s 6 Bucket List Miami Road Trips.

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2 Comments

  1. Great tips! We’ve been on a fair few disastrous road trips over the year so are slowly working out what works and what doesn’t. Like you say, patience and flexibility is key, we take a lot longer than we could just to keep everyone happy.

    • Yes- my favorite trick has been combining a food, gas, & potty break with a playground. I feel like it encourages car naps and minimizes meltdowns. There is nothing worse than arriving somewhere on time and having everyone be miserable! Thanks for reading.

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