Parents of children with special needs, particularly autism, know their child’s happy place is at home. Home is dependable and full of their usual food and activities, and it forms a barrier from the unpredictable outside world. It’s good that they’re comfortable somewhere, but they can rely on home too much and dread going out—and the prospect of not just going out, but spending days away from home can be terrifying for them. This makes road trips a challenge for parents and their kids with special needs. If you’re planning a trip, consider these helpful road trip tips for parents of children with special needs.
Don’t Expect Perfection
First, temper your expectations before you leave. If you expect your child to take every change in stride—something most children with autism cannot do—you risk significant disappointment on your end and undue anger when they act out. You can certainly use some coping strategies—many of which are better instituted well before you get into the car—but be ready for them to have a bad day all the same.
Be Ready to Adapt
When an issue arises, be prepared to switch to plan B. Build in some extra travel time to make accommodations possible, and be sensitive to your child’s needs. You don’t want to reward bad behavior, but a road trip often provokes real anxiety that underlies yelling, hitting, or other behaviors. For this reason, more frequent stops may help, especially if they’re in full meltdown mode and potentially a threat to whoever is driving.
Driving risks are intrinsic to any road trip. Due to this unpredictability, plan out how you’ll occupy your child if you must pull your car over. Keeping your calm helps, as does walking them through what’s going on so that they can be in the know, too. In an unforeseen situation such as this, it also doesn’t hurt to allow more device time or access to snacks than you typically would.
Use Social Stories
Another road trip tip for parents of children with special needs is to utilize social stories. Social stories are detailed descriptions of what an activity will look like. Their purpose is to enhance a child’s ability to predict what will happen during a new activity. This includes what will happen, why it happens that way, what it will look like, what it will smell like, and how they can cope with everything. These social stories help your child be more flexible as they encounter new things and more compliant when they need to do certain things. On a road trip, such stories can help them go to the bathroom at a rest stop, stay in their car seat for long periods, give siblings physical space, and much more. Make these social stories as specific to your child as possible, keeping in mind what they struggle with the most.
Pack Your Tool Kit
As you prepare for your road trip, make sure you pack some helpful tools. You’ll want things your child associates with home as well as items specific to managing a long car ride. Here’s a list of a few things that parents of children with special needs might find helpful:
- Handheld devices
- Favorite foods
- Toys they love
- A weighted blanket
- A five-point harness seatbelt