Taking Your Child with ADHD or Autism on a Road Trip
There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned road trip to bring a family closer together – wind in your hair, favorite songs on the radio, watching the countryside pass one mile at a time. Thousands of families will be traveling the highways this summer, dropping their children off at summer camp, coming together for a family vacation, or just experiencing the thrill of the open road.
But for parents of children with special needs like ADHD, Autism, or other challenges, taking a road trip isn’t so simple. The staff at Talisman Camps should know. Last year alone, they took students with ADHD, autism, and similar executive functioning needs on over 70,000 miles worth of road trips! Between day trips at their ADHD summer camp, learning expeditions at their autism school, or the occasional night on the town with their young adult program, they certainly know the joys and challenges of traveling with children and teens with special needs.
With over 25 years of experience sharing adventures at their private school for kids with autism and their special needs summer camp, the caring professionals at Talisman Programs have helpful advice for parents planning a family road trip this summer.
Before You Leave!
As with all road trips, planning a vacation with a child with autism, ADHD, or other special needs requires preparation and planning. Many children, especially those with special needs, have a hard time with transitions. Needless to say, a road trip can be a major transition. But like any transition, appropriate planning can make it successful.
A helpful strategy is to involve your child in planning and preparing process. Whether it is looking up online directions or buying a new swimsuit, the more involvement they can have before a trip, the better.
Before you leave, hold a family meeting about the trip. Include maps and calendars, so every family member can offer ideas, discuss concerns and special requests, and understand the itinerary. If your child has particular sensory issues, be careful in choosing your destination (amusement parks, loud concerts, etc.) to avoid overloading him with experiences he won’t enjoy. Research your destination online so your child has a visual image of how the trip will be.
Staying Structured on the Road
Scheduling is important not only to stay on track with your road trip plans, but to provide a sense of predictability. For a child with autism, ADHD, or other special needs, structure is just as important on the road as it is in the classroom at school, at camp, or anywhere else.
A lack of structure can be very stressful for a child with autism or ADHD. Once your long-awaited trip is underway, be sure to preserve elements of your daily routine, but do it in a way that makes sense on the road. For instance, many families have a daily or weekly family meeting. On a road trip, it may make more sense to schedule the meeting at the hotel before leaving for the day. Though the routine has to change to accommodate your new surroundings, the core of what you do as a family can remain intact.
In planning your schedule, start by including some down time each day to avoid overload. Break up long drives with interesting stops and stretch breaks. To help structure your child’s time, try giving him specific responsibilities during the trip such as keeping track of the mileage and looking for your family’s preferred gas station.
Talk to your child about the type of behavior expected in each place before going in and set consequences for failing to behave appropriately. This doesn’t just apply to general rules such as behavior in public places; it also applies to specific family planning. For instance, if you only have a certain amount of time budgeted to eat along the way, help your child understand the timeframe in advance.
Making Wise Choices about Food and Entertainment
Structure is also important when it comes to meals. As much as possible, stick to regular meal times and meals consisting of wholesome foods. Although vacation can be a time for splurging, avoid extra sweets or a substantially different diet that may cause digestive problems and damage the structure you’ve worked to create at home.
When planning your family’s entertainment, choose a variety of activities that offer something for everyone. It can be tempting to pop in a DVD– some parents feel this is a necessary evil. Although the occasional DVD on a road trip can be a welcome relief to parents, make sure your children are also taking in the scenery and enjoying the full experience of the family vacation.
Despite all of your planning and organization, unexpected events can and probably will happen. Try to stay flexible when plans go awry and be patient with your child’s needs and reactions. This whole experience is likely very new to him.