Ten hours, eight hours or even four hours can all be too long when facing a car ride with children.  The smells, whines, cries, requests coupled with maps, traffic and construction are enough to send the saints into road rage.  Facing my last car trip I cringed when I calculated it would be eight long hours with my three children.  Including my autistic son.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurological disorder that affects the communication and social skills.  One of the core deficits is the child’s inability to accept change to routine.  A typical child’s meltdown can cause any parent to cringe but a meltdown from a child with ASD is earsplitting and never ending.  I wasn’t looking forward to the stress let alone the possible public embarrassment.

In typical mother fashion, I called on friends to help.  What advice did they have for long car rides?  I figured the mother of an autistic child would have the best advice for surviving albeit enjoying a car ride with the family.  They are experts and I needed more than a DVD player.


Marlo Ellsworth, mother of seven and three with autism, advises customized activity bags she keeps at her feet.  Filled with inexpensive toys, she can toss them back and keep a child happy for hours.  She also recommends earplugs for them and yourself.  On her recent ten-hour trip to the ocean, she relied heavily on LeapPads with headphones to keep her children entertained.  “I can’t afford an individual DVD player for each child and they don’t agree on any one movie.  LeapPads are affordable with specific books for that child’s interest.  I also use inexpensive toys for bribery”

Flushable wipes are a necessity for Monica Haney, mother of two and one with autism.  “Not only for cleaning sticky fingers but also indispensable for a child not potty trained.  We also take a vinyl pad to place under hotel bed sheets and even more important, Grandma’s bed sheets.”

Monica keeps her child calm in the car with a variety of library CD’s.  “A stack of CD’s keeps him happy and we don’t go out of our mind listening to the same one over and over,” she explains.  Monica also keeps a backpack in the trunk filled with magna doodles, suckers and smartees.  “For those tricky moments when you are waiting for food to arrive at the inevitable restaurant stops.  Crayons and the back of a menu don’t always work.”

Driving at night is the key for Lisa Yeary, mother of two and one with autism.  “We leave at midnight so the bulk of the drive is quiet.”  She also packs sensory toys such as vibrating beanbags, weighted toys or teethers to help her child remain calm.  “Of course, the DVD is essential.  I plan out a portion of the trip dedicated to the DVD player and use those CD over the visor storage units.  Saves room.  We also use headphones.  We need to keep Mom and Dad sane as well.”

Marlo has also taken the nighttime drive with her children sleeping quietly in the back.  “These past few years it just hasn’t worked as well.  The first day is such a killer for the parents and the children are manic to start vacation.  Now we start very early with the children still sleeping so some of the trip is in quiet.”

In the past I have paired my older daughters with my son on a rotating basis.  If they limit their time with him, and each other, fewer fights break out.  At each rest room stop we look like a fire drill as the children all rotate seats in the car.

I compiled the advice and evaluated all my options.  Nighttime driving was not an option for this trip.  We did decide to start out after dinner with the hopes that the children would fall asleep.  It worked partially.  My middle child fell sleep and we couldn’t wake her to trade seats.  After ten o’clock my five-year-old son fell asleep drooling on his fourteen year old sister’s shoulder.

The activities packets worked very well for the trip there.  They didn’t work on the trip home.  My son kept asking repeatedly for his ‘new’ toys.  We almost had a melt down on Highway 80.  My daughters averted the crisis by sharing their toys with him.  My daughters loved their gift bags and enjoyed them thoroughly.  My son enjoyed the inexpensive dollar store items more.   I carefully selected items that did not propel, launch, pop or crack.  We didn’t Dad to worry about gunfire or blown tires.

I rented several CD’s from the library.  I selected movie soundtracks they enjoyed as well as sing-along CD’s of pop songs.  We enjoyed those for a few hours.  My husband even joined in much to our surprise and then dismay.  We all laughed loudly when Mom and Dad couldn’t keep up with the pop song words.

The restaurant backpack was a lifesaver.  My son does not color so he loved playing with his own toys and sucking on candy while waiting for his kid’s meal.  He showed his waitress that he brought his own toys.  He told her she could keep the crayons.

The Leap Pad was a great hit.  I selected a few books on topics that interested him.  Classics like Spiderman, Superman and Sponge Bob.  The headphones and Leap Pad kept him entertained for almost a whole hour!  I admit that he has played with it since the trip during his quiet time.

Another unexpected benefit was having the headphones in New York.  My son is sensitive to sound.  The headphones helped him deal with the noise and keep him calm during our visit.

Of course, the biggest hit was the DVD player.  Fortunately, I had rented several newer releases from the library.  Utilizing the storage solution over the visor, I cut down on the floating debris around my feet.

I do wish I had purchased those disposable wipes.  I must not be a good housekeeper to not have those in the car.  There are distinctive handprints on the windows.  Guess whom they belong to?  Another item that I will purchase for the next trip is behind-the-seat organizer for the clutter.  I am still finding pens, lip-glosses and shoes in the van.

All in all we made the eight-hour trip without killing each other.  Not entirely blissful but we did end up having a good time.  The experience has taught me that the key to any travel is in the preparation.  Perhaps we could survive a trip out west?  Well, not yet.

By  Ann Schlosser, mother and author of Mom, He Did It, A Mother/Daughter Mystery and owner of www.autismtravel.org and the blog www.waitingfortheupside.blogspot.com