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Holiday Road Trips: Five Tips to Reduce Stress

This is a post by Autism Response Team Senior Coordinator Emily Mulligan. For resources and information, contact the Autism Response Team at familyservices@autismspeaks.org or by phone at 888-288-4762 (en Espanol 888-772-9050). 

Although the holidays are a wonderful time to spend visiting with family and friends, holiday travel can be stressful for many individuals with autism and their families. For some families affected by autism, even driving to visit relatives can become a complicated endeavor. However, with a little planning you can make car trips go more smoothly for everyone. To help, we have compiled some tips to keep in mind when preparing for a car trip during the holidays.

1. Bring Supplies.

One great strategy for keeping kids happy in the car is packing a bag with a variety of toys, games, and distractions for your child. Consider purchasing some small, inexpensive (think Dollar Store) toys and items and putting them together into a car goody bag – this will be exciting for your child to open, and discovering the array of new toys may keep him occupied for longer. Other things to bring:

  • Preferred toys
  • Books
  • Music player or CDs
  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • Small fidget toys, such as Slinkys, koosh balls, etc.
  • Portable sensory items like a weighted lap pillow or a soft arm brush.
  • Change of clothing

If your child communicates using an alternative method, make sure you have all the necessary supplies (including a portable charger for any electronic devices).

If you have an iPad, tablet, or portable DVD player, these can be great to keep your child busy in the car. Download a movie ahead of time, or bring a few favorite DVDs to watch.

Make sure you also bring some favorite snacks and drinks, particularly if your child has dietary restrictions, to avoid any hunger-related issues.

2. Use Visual Supports

Children with autism often do well with pictures and visuals. Before you leave, it could help to make a visual schedule of your trip so that your child knows what to expect.  Include things like bathroom breaks, stops for meals, and activities your child may do in the car.

Social stories are another great tool to help your child prepare for and rehearse events that are out of the ordinary, like a car trip or vacation. You can find some examples and templates to help you create a social story here: Forms and Personalized Stories from Microsoft Word

For more help with visual supports, download the ATN/AIR-P Visual Supports and Autism Spectrum Disorder Tool Kit.

3. Give everyone their space.

If you have more than one child in the car, odds are they may start to get on each other’s nerves after a while. Brainstorm some ways to ensure that each child has their own space – and a way to escape their annoying sibling if needed. Consider bringing a large pillow to put in between seats, or if possible, have children sit in different rows. Make sure siblings have their own toys and items, to avoid sharing-related conflicts. Headphones can come in handy as well, both to block out noise from other siblings and also to allow each child to listen to his/her own music or movie.

4. Take a break!

Before leaving, consider the length of your journey. How long can your child reasonably sit in the car before beginning to get antsy or upset? If you are planning to drive for a few hours or more, map out some strategic stops where your child can get out, stretch his legs, use the bathroom, and escape the car for a few minutes. Make sure to listen to your child if he indicates he needs to take a break – better to lose a little time than to face a potential meltdown on the highway!

However, keep in mind that some children do have trouble with frequent transitions. If this is the case for your child, try to limit the number of times she has to get in and out of the car.  

5. Practice and reward positive behavior.

Instead of waiting until your child has a challenging behavior, try to notice the times when he is sitting in his seat appropriately, reading quietly, sharing with his sibling, etc. Reward this with praise, a sticker, a token on his token board, a small toy, or anything else that is reinforcing for your child. You could even consider having your child earn a special reward at the end of the drive for following the “Car Rules.” These rules could include things like staying in his seat, keeping seatbelt on, no hitting siblings, and so on.

For children who do have a hard time with traveling, practice ahead of time! Start by taking your child on a short drive, and reward her for following the “Car Rules.” Then, gradually increase the length of time she is sitting in the car and following the rules. This will teach her what you want her to do, and help her practice tolerating more time in the car. That way, when she does have to sit in the car for a longer trip, she will be used to it!

Most families will have to take a trip in the car at some point, particularly around the holidays. While the prospect of several hours in the car can sound stressful, a little preparation can go a long way. By planning ahead you can make the journey much smoother and set your child up for success! For more great tips to reduce stress when traveling, see the following resources:

Traveling Tips for Individuals with Autism and Their Families – Community Connections newsletter

Ten Strategies for Traveling with a Child with Autism, or, How Do We Survive the Trip? By Ann Schlosser

Travel Trips for Families with an Individual on the Autism Spectrum, By Chantal Sicile-Kira

Adventures with Autism: A Guide to the Airport Experience! 

Safety Products, including Seatbelt Buckle Guard, from our Resource Library

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.