Parent & Caregiver Guide to Driving With a Child Who Has Special Needs
Traveling can be challenging for any family, but traveling with children who have autism spectrum disorder and other special needs can present unique challenges. Travel can also bring joy to kids with special needs and enable families to have memorable experiences and connections with loved ones.
Parenting children who have special needs can be complex and costly, but that doesn't mean families need to miss out on travel. Experts and parents encourage families to approach traveling with children who have special needs with planning and preparation. Dr. Emily King, a psychologist and mother of a child with special needs, suggests traveling is like any skill you teach your kids; it can get easier with practice. Starting with shorter road trips may make travel more manageable.
We've compiled tips, resources and expert advice for managing road trips with kids who have special needs.
Managing Challenges While On the Road
Almost every child can display behaviors that may not be safe while driving, but children with special needs may be more prone to such actions. Those with language delays may struggle to understand or follow directions, making behavioral and physical challenges more difficult. Creating a plan and preparing to stay calm when such challenges arise can ease the struggles that go along with road travel.
Children with ASD, developmental delays or other conditions may display behaviors that can lead to distracted driving on a road trip. Common challenges include impulsivity, hyperactivity, aggressive behavior or failure to follow directions. Many children go through a phase where they don't like being in a car seat or seat belt, but for some children with special needs, this may be an ongoing issue that makes it hard to travel. Refusing a seat belt can obviously make it difficult to drive safely, especially if you're in the car for a long time.
These issues can be distracting — and dangerous — to the driver. Behavioral challenges can also arise when kids don't understand what's going on, as with children with limited language development or delays.
Children with ASD may be exceptionally rigid or sensitive to changes in their routines. Specific physical needs can be complicated to manage while traveling.
Specific physical needs
Many children with special needs, especially children with ASD, have specific eating habits and foods they identify as their favorite.
When your child needs a bathroom break, keep in mind that public toilets can be unfamiliar or difficult for children with special needs.
Sleeping arrangements during travels can disrupt and impact sleep habits with children with special needs, particularly kids with ASD.
Challenges With Food: Many kids with ASD have particular eating habits and favorite foods. “A lot of parents spend a lot of time making sure they have the exact brand (and) the exact packaging for kids who are very rigid in what they're willing to eat,” said Dr. Elizabeth Caronna, a pediatrician specializing in ASD.
Challenges With Bathroom Breaks: There's no way to avoid the need for bathroom breaks on a long road trip, but using public toilets can be strange or difficult for kids, especially those with ASD. According to Caronna, using public restrooms can be tricky and throw off toilet training.
Challenges With Sleep: Caronna also says sleep disruption can be common among children with ASD while traveling. Sleeping in a hotel room or guest room at a relative's house can impact sleep well beyond the vacation.
"I hear that a lot," said Caronna. "'It all happened when we took the road trip, and since then the sleep has not been the same.'" Kids might insist on sleeping in the same room with caregivers if they got used to doing so during vacation.
Strategies for How to React and Stay Calm
Parents can try several strategies for managing their reactions to challenging behaviors or kids' physical needs while traveling.
Prepare for behavior challenges
It's not easy to stay calm in the heat of the moment when your kids are misbehaving. Chances are your kids will test your patience, especially on a more extended trip. Think ahead about strategies you can use, like counting to 10 or taking deep breaths — or even just ignoring the behavior. Then, draw on those plans when the inevitable annoyances happen.
Set ground rules
They may need frequent reminders, but make and discuss ground rules with your kids before you get on the road. Explain what you expect from them, and remind them of the rules if their behavior deteriorates.
Keeping kids occupied can be essential to a peaceful and safe driving experience. Many parents try to limit screen time, but screens can be lifesavers on a long road trip. Kids can be entertained and stay calm when they might otherwise be bored out of their minds. Show yourself grace and allow the screens. Music, audiobooks or car games can also be good entertainment.
Take a break
If your child is getting agitated and you feel yourself doing the same, it may be time for a break. Find a rest stop or even just a gas station where you can safely get out of the car and stretch your legs.
Disciplining a child while driving may not be feasible. If your child is out of control or excessively disruptive, you may have to find a safe place to stop the car until the behavior subsides.
Speaking From Experience: Driving With a Child Who Has Special Needs
MoneyGeek interviewed parents with experience traveling with children with special needs. They offer practical tips, born of experience, that can help other parents preparing to travel with special needs children.
- Why is traveling important or valuable to you? Given that it may be difficult, what are the benefits?
- What have been the most challenging elements of road trips with your child? What pitfalls have you experienced?
- What are some strategies you’ve found helpful in planning road travel with your child?
- What have you found helpful for managing unexpected issues while you're traveling — things for which you couldn't necessarily plan?
- Is there anything else you’d like to add about traveling with a child with special needs?
Parent of a Child With Special Needs
Parent of a Child With Special Needs
Creating Your Road Trip Safety Plan
Taking any road trip requires that you have good car insurance and essential safety supplies. You may need to take extra precautions and get special equipment when traveling with special needs children. Depending on your child’s age, size and individual needs, there may be safety products you should consider to ensure your trip is as safe as possible.
How much car insurance you need depends on many factors, including what your state requires and how much coverage you can afford. Each state has minimum liability requirements, but they may not be enough for families with special needs children. You may need a higher level of coverage for medical costs for a child with special needs in the event of an accident or to cover the cost of any vehicle modification or special equipment you may have installed.
In addition, make sure you have roadside assistance in case your car breaks down on the road. The last thing you want to deal with when traveling with a special needs child is a major disruption like a breakdown without knowing help is a phone call away.
Car Safety Tools and Practices
You’ll want to take all precautions possibly to ensure that you make it to your destination safely. To prepare for a road trip with your special needs child, there are several valuable and worthwhile safety steps you can take ahead of time.
Install the right car seats
Find products to keep special needs kids safe and comfortable
Some children with ASD need specialized restraints when they travel. Special harnesses, vests or restraints can keep kids safer by making it harder to unbuckle their seat belts or restraints. Children with sensory processing disorder may be soothed by tighter-fitting straps or even a weighted vest. Parents should not modify car seats on their own, as that could make them less safe.
Use your car’s safety features
Most cars have child locks which prevent kids from opening the car door when they shouldn’t. Keep those locks on.
Keep an eye on things
You can also get mirrors to help you keep an eye on your child if there’s no adult who can supervise from the back seat.
Get your car a check-up
Check the engine oil, the air in your tires and any other maintenance issues before getting on the road.
Road Trips and Extended Travel
With planning and preparation, road trips can be manageable and fun for families of special needs children. Longer trips that involve overnight stays may take more practice and deliberation. There are many strategies you can use to make longer trips as smooth and enjoyable as possible.
How to Make Road Trips Fun for a Child Who Has Special Needs
You want to arrive at your destination safely and with as few incidents as possible, but what about having some fun along the way? Traveling is a great adventure for all members of your family and can be so for your child with special needs as well. If you take time to practice, plan, imagine and discuss your travel plans ahead of time, getting there will be much more enjoyable.
With some planning and creative thinking, road trips can not only be manageable, but they can be fun as well. Use these tips when planning your trip.
Acclimate your child to the car
Let your child get used to his or her car seat. Explain the rules of being in the car. Let them get used to the car before you go on a trip.
Practicing for longer road trips with shorter ones can be helpful. Or, take a day trip before a longer overnight or multiple-day journey.
Anticipate the challenges
You can’t predict everything that could go wrong, but you know your child. Think about what’s likely to be most challenging for them and strategize ahead how you might manage or ward off problems before they begin.
Find things about which your child is excited
Allow time to stop at unique places or to have experiences your child is excited about and can look forward to. These highlights can help kids stay positive on a long trip.
Visualize the trip
Kids with ASD may benefit from visualizing the route ahead of time and understanding where and when the stops will be. Using social stories to help kids know what to expect can work well.
Make a schedule
Map out your trip with estimated timing and let your child know what to expect. Leave extra time to account for the unexpected as well as for special stops or breaks.
Having enough snacks — and the right ones — can make a road trip more pleasant for everyone.
Plan their entertainment
Depending on your child’s age and interests, plan the movies, shows, books or games they can have on the trip. They may enjoy getting to pick their entertainment, which may add to their excitement or positive feelings about traveling.
Bring comforts of home
Does your child have a beloved stuffed animal, pillow or blanket? Bringing some special comfort items from home can make the car a more comfortable place.
Prepare to be flexible
No matter how well you plan for your trip, travel can be unpredictable. Expect to adapt and bring a dose of extra patience and resourcefulness to help your child get through any unwelcome surprises.
Using the proper technique when traveling with your child can make all the difference when on the road. Try these travel techniques for a more laid-back adventure.
Let go of your expectations
Road trips with your child who has special needs may not feel like much of a vacation for you. Instead of holding on to an image of the perfect family vacation, focus on making the trip as safe and comfortable as you can.
Make frequent stops
Many kids will need breaks from the confines of the car. Allow time for bathroom and food breaks, to stretch your legs and to catch attractions like special sites or shops your child may be interested in.
Use rewards for good behavior
Rewards can be great incentives for kids who may struggle with their behavior. Reinforce good behavior like staying buckled, but plan ahead, so you're prepared with meaningful, reasonable rewards.
Bring a travel pack
A special travel bag or kit with toys, books and activities that are only for traveling can make the trip more fun and give your child activities to look forward to.
Make a routine
Traveling disrupts your everyday home routines, which can be tough for kids. To the extent possible, stick with any habits you can on the road and create road trip routines that generate a sense of structure to the trip.
Many tools have been designed with travel with special needs children in mind. The following tools can help keep peace while on the road or in the air.
People with ASD may seek or avoid sensory inputs. A sensory kit can help kids during times of transition or times when they feel overwhelmed. Sensory items can help the child process the situation and help them cope with their stress. Sensory kits must be customized to the individual.
Get a behind-the-seat organizer to keep your child’s things. If they can reach their things safely, you can keep your eyes on the road.
A timer can create a visual cue for children to be able to follow how long they have until the next stop or activity.
Noise-canceling headphones can help minimize the road noise that can be upsetting to some children. New tires can also help diminish road noise. On the other hand, some kids may sleep better with a white-noise machine once you arrive at your destination.
Weighted blankets or vests
These can help keep a child calm on the road — both while traveling and when arriving at your destination.
Staying Secure and Comfortable Along the Way
Once you’re armed with the tools and techniques that will help you on the road, there are some essential things to know as you make your way to your destination. If you will be traveling with a service animal or want to seek out businesses that are equipped to manage guests with special needs, the following tips can help.
Know Your Rights
If your child uses a service animal as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, your child is entitled by federal law to be accompanied by the animal at all times. This includes while in restaurants and hotel rooms. However, different rules apply if the animal is used for emotional support but is not a service animal that has been specifically trained to perform a task for the health or safety of the person with the disability. While some businesses do allow for the presence of emotional support animals, by federal law, they do not have to allow them unless they have been trained to perform a task. Some local and state jurisdictions may have laws regarding the use of emotional support animals. You do not have to furnish proof that your animal is a service animal, and your animal does not have to wear a special patch or vest, but your animal must be under control at all times.
Even if a service animal accompanies you, specific rules do apply. At restaurants, the dogs must remain on the floor at all times. Hotels are not required to allow service animals in the rooms by themselves. If allowing service animals would cause the business to alter the nature of a service or program provided to the public, the business can restrict the animal's use. An example would be if you have a service animal at the zoo, but certain animals in the zoo become upset over a dog's presence.
If you feel that your child has been discriminated against while using a service animal, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department. Sometimes calling ahead and explaining your child's situation to a manager can fix the problem.
Interactions With Others
It can be hard to stay calm when your child has a meltdown in public. Most children with ASD do not look any different from other children and may simply be judged by others as "too old" to be having a temper tantrum. As a result, strangers may not be especially sympathetic, and parents may feel judged. One strategy parents can adopt is to carry "My child has autism" wallet cards that explain your situation and ask for understanding.
Stopping at ASD and Disability Friendly Locations
Not all travel destinations or ways to get there are autism-friendly. Some have non-judgmental and well-informed staff trained on ASD and primed to understand the needs of people with ASD. Autism Double-Checked reviews hotels and airlines for their level of autism friendliness. A rating of "autism aware" denotes that staff has been trained on ASD, while "autism ready" means staff is trained explicitly about situations that might arise and how to handle them. Parent groups, such as those on social media, can also be good resources to find autism-friendly hotels or destinations.
If you’re planning to stay in hotels along the way, or if your destination is a resort rather than a relative’s house, you may want to buy travel insurance. Travel insurance can be helpful if something goes wrong before or during your trip. It may help you recoup your costs if your trip is interrupted due to a medical emergency or illness, weather event or other disruptions.
Make sure you know what the policy covers and that you could get help paying for a medical emergency or recouping your hotel costs.
Expert Insight on Traveling With a Child Who Has Special Needs
MoneyGeek spoke with ASD experts to provide insights on how to manage traveling with special needs children. From their clinical practice treating children on the autism spectrum, these experts offer practical advice and perspectives on how and why to travel successfully with special needs kids.
- What are some of the challenges that present themselves when traveling with kids with special needs?
- What are some of the strategies parents can use for planning a road trip to minimize disruption for kids with special needs?
- What makes travel, or road trips in particular, difficult for kids on the autism spectrum?
- Why is travel essential even if it is difficult? What is the value of this kind of travel for families with special needs kids?
Chief, Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Atrius Health
Licensed Child and Adolescent Psychologist at a private practice in Raleigh, North Carolina
Additional Resources for Traveling With Children With Special Needs
There are many resources for people with ASD and specifically to help families traveling with children who have special needs. Some resources include:
- Autism Double-Checked: Provides training and certification for autism-friendly destinations or travel companies. They provide guides and social stories for specific autism-friendly establishments.
- Carol Gray Social Stories: The creator of the Social Story concept offers explanations and samples of Social Stories, social learning tools that support children with ASD.
- The National Center for the Safe Transportation of Children with Special Health Care Needs: Part of the Automotive Safety Program at the Indiana University School of Medicine, the National Center provides safe transportation information and resources for providers and families with special needs kids.
- Pathfinders for Autism: Offers an online provider directory, help line, articles and guides to understand and manage autism.
- Organization for Autism Research (OAR): Parent-led and science-driven, OAR provides information and directs research to improve the lives of people with autism.
- Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR): Serves as a centralized resource for Parent Training Information Centers and Community Parent Resource Centers, which work with families of special needs children.
- Autism Society: A national organization that advocates for public policy, operates the Autism Source database and offers a national contact center (800-3-AUTISM) to provide information and referrals.
- Autism Speaks: Conducts research, advocacy, and programming on autism.
About the Author
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