Road Trip Tips for Kids with Special Needs

Two southeast Michigan moms share their advice for going on a road trip with a child who has special needs.

Warren mom Sarah Austin and her husband have been traveling with their sons ever since the boys were little.

“We have done quite a bit of traveling with our kids and I won’t fly so all of the traveling that we do is in the car,” Austin says.

Austin’s sons, Julien and Sylas, ages 13 and 10, have a number of special needs including autism, ADHD and sensory processing disorder. Austin’s husband also has ADHD, along with some chronic medical conditions, so when it comes time to travel, she has to plan ahead for everyone’s needs. At this point, she’s a road trip pro with two Disney road trips and regular 3.5-hour road trips to see her mom Up North under the belt.

Likewise, Carly Callison, a mom of two from Beverly Hills, hits the road often with her family. For the Callison crew, much of the car travel is for her 16-year-old son’s travel hockey and lacrosse games. Callison’s youngest son, 14-year-old Wilson, has Down syndrome, so Callison has to plan ahead for any needs he may have while on the road.

If you’re a parent of a child with special needs who is considering a road trip this summer, read these road trip tips for traveling with kids with special needs — straight from these two special needs parents.

Plan ahead

Before you hit the road, spend time researching places to stop along the way, in addition to hotel accommodations that are suitable for your child and his or her needs. Austin suggests staying in a hotel that is close to a hospital in case of an emergency.

If your child needs special equipment, be sure to pack that. Always have a plan and a backup plan in place, Austin suggests. For a child with epilepsy, for example, she says to have a seizure plan in place.

While traveling with nonverbal kids, have something on their seatbelt with their name and any allergies that a medical provider will need in case of an emergency.

“As my son has gotten older, our No. 1 consideration is planning food,” Callison says. “Wilson is a very picky eater due to sensory issues. I typically cook at least one meal a day for him to either eat out of a thermos if we are driving or something that can be warmed up in a hotel microwave. I cut up fresh fruit and try to keep his diet as exact to home as I can. If we eat out we have to plan in advance that there will be food that Wilson will eat.”

Prepare your child for the road trip

Having disruption to their schedules can result in meltdowns for all kids, and for kids with special needs, these disruptions can be even more upsetting. Callison says to keep their diet and routine, including naps and bedtimes, the same to avoid any complications.

To further prepare them for a trip, Callison suggests telling your child what the plans are and what they can expect to happen each day of the trip.

Make regular stops

Too much time in the car isn’t good for anyone, so it’s important to stop and stretch your legs.

“Stopping for a meal at a restaurant is not considered a break for us because they still have to sit,” Austin says, so she makes sure to stop at parks or somewhere that her boys can move around a bit.

For longer car rides — like a trip to Disney, for example — stop halfway. She’s never done an entire trip all at once. Instead, her family breaks the trip into smaller chunks and does activities along the way. Research some places to visit (like an aquarium) on the way to your destination. You can stay at a hotel overnight, as well, to give the kids some time to relax and reset from the car ride.

Provide entertainment

Whether it’s movies or iPads, fidget toys or coloring books, keep your kids occupied with their favorite sources of entertainment.

If your kids are like Austin and her boys, who get car sick, screens, coloring and books cause more harm than good. Instead, stock up on items from the dollar store or 5 Below, she says. Snag matchbox cars, silly putty or fidget toys.

“My 10-year-old loves the Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty. He’ll do just about anything for that stuff,” Austin says.

 Consider your child’s unique needs

“I think the biggest thing is taking into account the needs of whatever special needs your child has,” Austin says.

For example, because her one son has sensory needs, she has to have noise-canceling headphones for car rides so that her other son can listen to music without upsetting his brother.

“Wilson also tends to get overstimulated and tires quickly, so we have to limit the amount of activity in one day and allow him to have time to himself to have some screen time with his headphones and shut out the noise of the world,” Callison says.

Adjust your expectations

“When you’re traveling with kids who are different, who have different needs, you can’t expect it to be a smooth road trip,” Austin says.

If you go into the trip with that mindset, you won’t be disappointed.

Content sponsored by Southeast Michigan Ford Dealers. Visit


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