Tips for family travel

Preparation makes family car trips easier for children with autism
We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of this article may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping-off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.

Why preparing for car travel is important to children with autism

While sometimes exciting and fun, travel can disrupt your child’s routine. This can be especially difficult for a child who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). You can help your child have a positive experience by preparing her for the trip, setting expectations, and building some flexibility into your plans.

Keep these tips in mind when planning for family car travel.

Prepare to go:

  • Help your child prepare for the trip by discussing plans as soon as you know them. Explain where, when and for how long you will be going.
  • Use role-playing or teaching stories to get your child ready for the different environments she will encounter as you travel.
  • Make a visual map or story of your trip to help your child prepare for the journey. Remind her who you’re visiting and what will happen while you’re there.
  • Encourage your child to discuss the trip and express her concerns.
  • Take short practice trips before you go if this is your child’s first long car trip or if it’s been a while since she last traveled.

Pack with purpose:

  • Bring items from home that your child finds comforting, and have her help you pack them. This may help ease her anxiety about leaving home.
  • Pack your child’s favorite toys, books, electronics and headphones to help him stay entertained and control overstimulation in the car.
  • Pack plenty of snacks and drinks. Bringing food from home and taking breaks at less stimulating places like parks and rest stops can help keep you on schedule and make eating more nutritious and less chaotic.

Practice patience with yourself and your child:

  • Build in time for rest breaks. Check for places along your route where you can quickly stretch and help your child release some physical energy.
  • Create a list of trip rules and have your child earn rewards for positive behavior. Use praise, stickers or small toys to reinforce good behavior throughout your trip.
  • Have a family safety plan and make sure that your child has some form of ID on her at all times.