Road Tripping with Autism

Helpful tips from a mom about taking a trip with a child with autism, from how to prepare for the car ride, to how to plan your days, and how to enjoy your time at the hotel.

Everything you need to know to prepare the family for the ride.

By Eileen Shaklee, Working Mother

My husband and I have always loved a good road trip. Then our son and autism came along for the ride. At first vacations just seemed impossible. Since then, we have learned a trick or two to make it work for us. Every trip has been an adventure and a learning experience for the next one. While we haven't perfected the art of road tripping with a child with autism, we have gotten pretty good at handling some of the surprises and, yes, even the sleep deprivation that comes with all of it. Here are some tips we’ve gleaned along the way.


Confirm everything!

What your room will include? I don't care so much about if my room has an iron when a fridge is way more important to our needs. Does your child like to jump and flap for sensory input? You might want to request and confirm a hotel room on the first floor or you might be hearing noise complaints. The most important thing to us is the pool. Is it outside or inside—and, most important of all, is it open? We once showed up at a hotel with a drained pool in the process of being remodeled. We walked right out and booked another place in the car. A pool is a necessity for us because swimming provides much-needed sensory input. The same with places to eat. I check their menus online and I call to double-check what, exactly, is on that kids’ menu. No fries? No way!


Get ready for the drive.

We prep our son with a schedule. “First driving. Then a bathroom break. Then back to driving. Then lunch. Then driving again.” He likes to check off each stop as it happens. Remember to pack snacks for everyone and place them where you and your kids can easily get to them. Storing them on the roof rack doesn’t do you much good when you’re on the road. Give your child exit numbers to look out for and/or play a good old-fashioned game of “I Spy” with them. This is also a time when I say, “Data plans be damned!” Hook up their devices to your phone through a Wi-FI hotspot. Mom and Dad can listen to the ‘80s or ‘90s station on the radio, and they can YouTube it all they want.


Plan one event a day.

You might not see as many sites, but you have to keep in mind that you are traveling with autism. Don't think you can pull a Clark Griswold and try to cram a visit to the Louvre into a 15-minute stop. You can either have a good time at one place or a miserable meltdown at several. Know your limits and, more importantly, your kid's. We find that writing a list of what we are going to do each day and reviewing it with our son over breakfast works. There’s even an app called “First/Then Visual Schedule” that allows you to use pictures of the places you are going. We occasionally have been able to sneak in an extra activity or two, but only if it was a smooth transition. I know when I spring something on my son, it has to be of high value or he's not going for it.


Up the comfort.

Your kid is already off their schedule and out of their comfort zone. We use the pool. A lot. It helps regulate him and burn off some of that energy. We pack his sensory sock and some fidgets. We also take breaks from breaks. Hubby and I tag-team to get some much-needed time by ourselves to regroup. He goes off and visits an obscure presidential home, such as Franklin Pierce’s digs. I go to the spa for a massage. (Personally, I think my breaks are more fun, but whatever.)


Pack a power strip.

Trust me on this one. Chargers for two phones, iPad, handheld games, portable DVD player, iPod, digital cameras, laptops and any other devices. Outlet placements generally stink in the hotel, and there are never enough of them. Setting up one designated charging station can help you stay organized. Chargers tend to grow feet and take walks in my experience. This way, when you are packing up to go home, they will all be there. The first time I packed one I felt a little silly, but holy smokes, what a game changer!


Take-out is your friend.

If your kid has had too much stimulation that day, comfort-eating pizza in bed while watching TV is a glorious thing. Hotels usually have menus for local restaurants in the room or suggestions from the front desk. Eating out can be a challenge—especially by dinnertime, when all this family togetherness has pretty much fried every last nerve. Cut yourself a break, take off your bra and order in. This is when the fridge in the room is a plus. Mama travels with a corkscrew, and I have no problem drinking my wine out of a hotel plastic cup.


Leave a few bucks for housekeeping when you check out.

If your kid is anything like mine, the room will look like a whirling dervish ran through while throwing fistfuls of broken Goldfish crackers everywhere. I consider showing our appreciation for the cleaning crew to be good karma for the next trip.


If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

We do a lot of “repeat destinations;” revisiting places works for us because we don’t do a ton of activities each time, leaving lots of things to explore. Besides, my idea of a good vacation has changed since becoming a mom. No cooking and cleaning for a few days? Works for me! So why not go back to places you have enjoyed before? After all, it’s your child’s vacation, too.
Tips for taking a road trip with a child with autism.
It's important to take breaks and even "breaks from breaks."

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Travel Magazine: Road Tripping with Autism
Road Tripping with Autism
Helpful tips from a mom about taking a trip with a child with autism, from how to prepare for the car ride, to how to plan your days, and how to enjoy your time at the hotel.
Travel Magazine
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