top road trip tips for families with autism

Our child with autism prefers set schedules and does not easily adjust to change. Vacationing in new places can be discomforting. However, proper planning can help cope with a unique situation. These road trip tips for families with autism did not come easily-  they come from experiences with car trips with kids during cross-country travel!

We trekked to Florida multiple times as a Midwesterner with four Disney-obsessed kids. We’ve learned how to travel with children over the years. Traveling across the country with kids can be exhausting for everyone. Luckily, we have learned what to do on long car trips and how to entertain kids with autism during car trips.

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. If you’re looking for tips for long car rides and how to travel in a car with an autistic child, look no further.

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top road trip tips for families with autism

How to Travel in a Car with an Autistic Child

Life seemed much simpler when we packed a single suitcase with whatever we felt like wearing for the week. With children, all that changes. Every traveling parent needs to pack a bundle of extra items, like car seats, diapers, strollers, snacks- even a first aid kit. Whether traveling by road or in your car, this is how to entertain kids with autism during car trips.

Use a Social Story

If you have kids with autism, there are special considerations. Planning can save your child from discomfort. Explain to your kid what they can expect from a road trip. You can try drawing pictures and creating a social story. Let your child know how it feels like to be in the car for so long, what they might see during the travel, and what they will see once they reach the destination. 

It will help in preparing your child mentally. They will feel less anxious and more excited when they live the story they heard a few days back. You can even role-play a few days before the trip to defuse your child’s anxiety. 

Create a Visual Schedule

First screen time, then snack and drink.

Every child is different, but to have a successful road trip, we make a general plan using a visual schedule or storyboard and stick to it. It can be super basic, but it’s essential to outline your child’s visual schedule plan. 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.

 Pack Favorite Possessions for Comfort

Make sure to pack their favorite lovey or worn book. Moreover, bring a familiar toy to help your kiddo relax and relate to the experience. Whether it’s a blanket or shoes,  do not forget to pack your child’s favorite stuff. All of these special tools provide the comfort of home.

We bring his favorite toys, blanket, and clothes that have proven comfortable. We must schedule physical activity into our day on long trips. The weighted blanket is helpful for late afternoon and early evening issues. 

We rounded up our favorite sensory-friendly play, fidget toys, chewelry,  and weighed blanks in our Typically Twitterpated Amazon Store

Bring Headphones

Noise can be disturbing for some kids with autism. The crowds and traffic noises may make my son anxious, and it may be hard to get comfortable with the idea of visiting new places. It helps to pack noise-canceling headphones for your kids. Play their favorite music or watch what they enjoy. It will keep them distracted. Avoiding the change in their surroundings may keep them calm and relaxed. 

Keep your Child’s Preferences in Mind

Parents do know what their kid likes or dislikes. When planning a trip and packing their stuff, keep all their sensory preferences in mind. Try to bring all you can to stick to a routine, which, if disturbed, can be overwhelming. 

Moreover, talk to your healthcare provider to make the traveling process more fun and smooth for your child. Please do not force your kid into anything that upsets them. Try to take a break midway so your child can rest and gear up for the fun activities you have planned. 

Be Prepared for the Unexpected

Even if you cover all your bases, there can always be something unexpected. The change in place and routine or the crowd can cause a complete upheaval. Make sure not to panic in such a situation. Consider keeping your kid engaged by playing spontaneous games or letting them use their gadgets. Take things slow if need be! 

Little tike plastic car with baby inside for article about traveling with children on road trips

Safety First

One of the biggest road trip tips for families with autism is to make sure that you keep your children safe. First, ensure that you can safely get your children to your vacation destination, even by mountain roads. Install all car seats properly before leaving your trip by visiting a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST)

Long road trips mean more opportunities for possible accidents. 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.

What about sleep?

Do you know what a day without a nap does to your toddler? Sleep deprivation of your kiddo with autism can also cause several issues in their parents. 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. You have options if you don’t want to pay out of pocket. 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?

Three smiling children on a bench during a road trip

Do your children have toys that are hiding under their dusty beds?   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 with an autistic child is not the time to prevent technology entirely.   You know that tablets can be your saving grace if you’re a parent.

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’s guilt! We also recommend books on tape (or the Audible app) to entertain the family.

Plan the Perfect Rest Stops

Longer car routes can be annoying. Coordinate your potty or gas break with a rest stop with plenty of green space. Either eat a packed lunch or pick up a picnic in the park for meals.

Have a plan for families (like us!) with multiple children to toilet or diaper at the rest stops. 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 less cramped. When children are cooped up on road trips, they need time to run. I use our breaks as a time to snuggle or explore sensory demands. Sensory breaks are critical for those with autism.

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 on 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 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.

Man driving a car during a road trip

Snack Attack

Think about food. Maybe your child has a special diet or preferences- bring those on the trip. If your kid likes a snack at a specific time of the day, prepare and pack it or buy it before you hit the road. Having your kid’s favorite meal along will surely keep them from being irritated with the change. 

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. 

The snacks we provide are the same as his favorite at-home snacks that do not require refrigeration, like 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 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 breastfeeding?

I always pumped in the car so we wouldn’t have to stop until the baby got hungry (or wet). For people who are breastfeeding that want to pump en route, you have a couple of options:

  1. Wear a strapless pumping bra. This option is cheap, and it does the heavy lifting for you.
  2. Purchase a pair of concealable collection cups that can attach to your pump. These cups slip into your bra (virtually undetected) and 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 to ease pumping in the car.

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

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

Cross country road trip tips with kids over a mountain background

Does traveling help with autism?

Traveling with autism can have unique stressors and disturbances to routine, but it also has benefits. Traveling brings joy to all members of the family. Families may travel for therapy, see a developmental specialist, visit family, or enjoy themselves.

How do you travel with a child with autism?

You can travel with a child with autism with careful planning and organization. Be patient with yourself, your partner, and your children. Flexibility matters! You may have a plan, but try not to become too rigidly attached.

Children will have potty accidents, juice spills, and emergency stops that may extend the length of an already long journey. 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!

How do I keep my autistic child occupied?

  • Bring favorite books and toys.
  • Discuss a social story ahead of time.
  • Create a visual schedule each day.
  • Bring nutritious foods that they love.
  • Keep your kiddo hydrated and make toilet stops.
  • Give them room to play or decompress at rest stops.
  • Include tablet time when necessary.

Final Road Trip Tips for Families with Autism

While traveling is a fun-filled experience for many, it can be anxiety-provoking. You can take a road trip with your kid with autism and help them enjoy their vacations. Car rides with autism just require a little planning. Let your love and care for your little one be incorporated into your travel planning to have a fantastic vacationing experience. 

What are your favorite tips for entertaining kids with autism during car trips? What are your favorite tips for cross-country road trips for families? Share your comments below!

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Adapted from a guest post by Sock On

traveling with kids with autism: the top tips for entertaining car 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.

    1. 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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