Change can be tough for individuals with autism because it means they are no longer able to maintain their old habits and routines. For children with autism, this change can be overwhelming and scary, particularly if they aren’t sure why the change is happening.
Road trips are a great way to spend quality time with your family; however, they can be a source of stress for children with autism due to the change in routine and uncomfortable sensory input. Here are four tips for road tripping with a child with autism to ensure they have a great time.
Pack Their Safe Foods
Many parents bring healthy snacks on longer trips so that their kids aren’t living off gas station snacks. This is particularly important when traveling with kids on the autism spectrum. Safe foods are named as such because they’re familiar and comforting. Your child will likely ask for this food frequently and eat it when they are stressed or overwhelmed.
Pack snack-type safe foods before leaving for the trip so that you won’t be stuck with whatever food is at the gas station. Pay attention to brand and flavor—your child may only prefer one specific taste. Different brands may experiment with different textures or tastes, which can disrupt the familiarity that makes safe foods comforting.
Allow Time for Movement
Many kids with autism get restless when they are not able to move freely, which is inevitable on a road trip. To counteract this, pack a variety of stim toys. Playing with different textures and sounds and having the ability to fidget while stationary will help them self-regulate.
Be sure to take breaks and let them walk around every few hours as well.
Encourage Their Special Interests
Is there a subject your kiddo just can’t learn enough about? For instance, are they obsessed with Greek mythology, pirates, or the Titanic? Whatever the subject, special interests are unique to people with autism. Engaging with a special interest provides comfort, entertainment, and mental stimulation.
Pack books, movies, or games related to your child’s interests. If they’re a bit older, consider bringing a tablet or laptop that allows them to do their own internet research. Tech can be a great tool to entertain kids on road trips.
Above all, do not force socialization on your child. Allow them to spend quiet time engaging with their subject of choice. When they feel ready to socialize with you, they will! Be ready to listen and ask questions about their special interest. They may have learned something new they want to share with you!
Provide Sensory Aids
Being in the car for long periods of time presents a lot of sensory input. Provide sensory aids to your child; this allows them to adjust their environment as needed to be more comfortable. Sensory aids can include noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses, window shades, or weighted blankets.
Allow sensory breaks, as the road noise itself can be overwhelming. Park in a quiet spot away from road noise and allow your child 15 minutes of silent alone time. Gas station breaks are great for stretching legs but can be overstimulating for people with autism, which can make an already stressful situation worse.
Stimuli that neurotypicals ignore can be majorly disruptive to people with autism. Neurodivergent individuals also have better hearing, so if your child is complaining about a high-pitched noise you can’t hear, don’t discredit them. If there’s a rattling or shrill sound upsetting your child, do your best to find and stop it.
Road tripping with a child with autism can be a blast. Just remember to take things slow and listen to what your child needs.