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Summer Road Trip Tips for Families with Children on the Autism Spectrum

Summer is the perfect time for family adventures and a road trip can be an exciting way to explore new places together. However, traveling with young children on the autism spectrum can present unique challenges.

But, with some careful planning and thoughtful preparation, you can ensure a smooth and enjoyable trip for the entire family.

Planning Your Trip

The key to a successful road trip begins with thorough planning. Be sure to:

  • Choose the Right Destination: Choose locations that are known to be autism-friendly. Research destinations that offer sensory-friendly attractions and accommodations.
  • Plan Your Route: Map out your journey with regular stops to allow your child to stretch, use the bathroom, and have a sensory break. Identify rest areas, parks, and quiet spots along the way.
  • Pack Smart: Bring familiar items that provide comfort and security, such as favorite toys, blankets, or noise-canceling headphones. Don’t forget essentials like medication, snacks, and plenty of water.
  • Create a Safety Plan: Whether your child has a tendency to elope or not, having a safety plan in place is always important when traveling with children. In case of an emergency consider creating a handout with identification, contact information, and need-to-know information about how to best communicate with your child. 

Preparing Your Child for the Trip

Planning your trip is only one step in your family’s summer road trip preparation. You also need to prepare your child, no matter how long or short the trip may be. 

Preparing your child for the road trip is crucial in reducing anxiety and ensuring a smooth experience. Here are some strategies to help:

  • Use Social Stories: Create a social story that outlines the trip from start to finish. Include details about the journey, stops, and the destination to help your child understand what to expect.
  • Visual Schedules: Develop a visual schedule that shows the daily itinerary, including travel times, stops, and activities. This can help your child anticipate the sequence of events and feel more in control.
  • Practice Runs: If possible, take short practice trips to help your child get used to being in the car for extended periods. Gradually increase the length of these trips to build their tolerance.
  • Sensory Preparation: Identify potential sensory triggers (e.g., loud noises, bright lights) and prepare accordingly. Pack sensory-friendly items like headphones, sunglasses, or a weighted blanket.
  • Role Play: Role-playing different scenarios, such as going through a security checkpoint or checking into a hotel, can help your child become familiar with new experiences.
  • Involve Your Child: Let your child participate in packing their travel bag with favorite items and snacks. Giving them some control can reduce anxiety and make them feel more secure.

On The Road Tips

Traveling by car can be challenging for any young child, but can also pose some unique challenges for children on the autism spectrum. Here are some tips to make the journey more comfortable:

  • Create a Comfortable Space: Set up the backseat with comfortable seating (while staying buckled in!) and easy access to toys and snacks. Consider using sun shades to reduce sensory overload from bright sunlight.
  • Stick to a Routine: Try to maintain your child’s regular schedule as much as possible, including meal times and naps. Consistency can help your child feel more secure.
  • Engage and Entertain: Bring a variety of activities to keep your child occupied, such as tablets with educational apps, DVDs, or audiobooks. Interactive toys or fidget tools can also be helpful.
  • Take Plenty of Sensory Breaks: Schedule regular stops to allow your child to move around and burn off energy. Short walks or stretches can make a big difference in their comfort level.

Once You Arrive at Your Destination

Arriving at a new place can be overwhelming for a child with autism. Here’s how to ease the transition:

  • Settle In: Take some time to familiarize your child with the new environment. Let them explore the space and find areas where they feel comfortable.
  • Keep it Calm: Avoid over-scheduling activities. Allow for downtime and quiet periods to help your child adjust to the new surroundings.
  • Maintain Routines: Try to keep bedtime and mealtime routines consistent with those at home. Familiar routines provide a sense of stability and predictability.
  • Be Flexible: Be prepared to adjust plans as needed. If an activity becomes too overwhelming, have a backup plan or be ready to take a break.

Autism Family-Friendly Destinations

Choosing the right destination can make all the difference. Consider these autism-friendly options:

  • Theme Parks: Many theme parks, like Disneyland and Legoland, offer special accommodations for guests with autism, including sensory-friendly areas and passes to avoid long lines.
  • National Parks: National parks provide natural beauty and plenty of space for children to explore. Many parks offer accessible trails and quiet spots away from crowds.
  • Museums and Aquariums: Look for museums and aquariums that offer sensory-friendly hours or exhibits designed for children with autism.
  • Beaches and Outdoor Spaces: Beaches can be great for sensory play with sand and water. Choose less crowded beaches or visit during off-peak times.

Visit California has some great resources and information about autism-friendly destinations throughout the state! You also may want to look for Autism Certified Cities

General Travel Tips for Small Children

Traveling with toddlers and young children, whether neurotypical or neurodivergent, can be a challenge. Here are some general tips to ensure a smooth trip.

  • Stay Organized: Keep travel documents, snacks, and entertainment easily accessible. Use a checklist to ensure you don’t forget important items.
  • Prioritize Safety: Ensure your child’s car seat is properly installed and that they are safely secured at all times. Use child safety locks on car doors.
  • Stay Calm: Your child can pick up on your stress. Stay calm and patient, and take breaks if needed to regroup.
  • Communicate: Use simple and clear language to explain what is happening and what to expect next. Consistent communication can help reduce anxiety.

By planning ahead and considering your child’s needs, you can create a positive and memorable road trip experience for your entire family. Remember to embrace the adventure and enjoy the special moments along the way!