Keeping your children safe during a car trip is necessary, but when your child has autism, it can be challenging. Your child’s sensory challenges, behaviors, or aggressive acts may distract you when you drive or cause other safety issues.
It’s critical to ensure that your entire family is safe while driving. Fortunately, there are practical steps you can take to protect everyone in your car.
Safety Concerns for You and Your Child
Even if your child with autism is having a difficult day, you can’t — and shouldn’t — always avoid driving. But first, you need to address unique issues while driving with a child with autism:
- Escaping Restraints: If your child is uncomfortable in a seat belt or car seat, they may find ways out of these safety devices as you drive.
- Objects: Sometimes children throw objects, harming others in the car including the driver. If you keep toys in the car, these can roll around and get stuck under your pedals while driving.
- Aggression and other distractions: A child with autism may hit or bite others including the driver, harm themselves, or scream and make other noises that distract or frighten the driver.
These issues can cause distracted driving, even on the best of days. The danger increases if you are tired, sick, or face other driving challenges, such as treacherous driving conditions. Three common types of distraction include:
- Cognitive: When your mind is not focused on driving, such as when you yell at your children.
- Manual: When your hands come off the steering wheel. If you reach to grab a toy or give your child a snack, it can be dangerous.
- Visual: Taking your eyes off the road. An example is if your child has a behavioral disturbance and you turn around to address it.
However, you can take steps to improve the safety of your drive.
Tips for Everyday Drives
Everyday driving should be a safe option you can choose most of the time. Here are some ways to ensure that you travel safely with your child any day of the week:
- Use proper restraints for your child: When children are little, parents have many options for car seats. However, older children with autism may need restraints to stay safe. Fortunately, there are car seats for children with special needs, including one up to 54 inches tall. Special needs booster seats accommodate people up to 174 pounds and 25-inch torsos. Another option is a travel safety vest for kids up to 65 pounds. You can also purchase seat belt covers and locks to prevent kids from opening them during the drive.
- Use stories to teach car safety: While children with autism don’t always understand safety issues, parents can use a story to teach them. Create this story with photos of family members in the car. You can add their favorite characters and write a story about how seat belts or car seats keep them safe. Show them how to communicate their discomfort while demonstrating the importance of keeping it on.
- Use items to soothe your child: Try your best to help your child avoid aggression or outbursts in the car. Play music they love. Set up a video on a DVD player or an iPad beforehand so they can safely be distracted during the drive. You can also give them a fidget toy if they can be trusted not to throw it.
- Pack your car: Keep items that distract, entertain, and help your child with autism. Stock a small portable bin with fidgets, plush toys, a change of clothing for your child, a blanket they can cuddle, and a towel in case they get wet or dirty. Be sure to carry hand sanitizer, a first aid kit, and wet wipes.
- Drive in optimal conditions if possible: When you can, only drive during the safest times of the day to travel. This means avoiding commuter traffic. Typically, rush hour is no longer one hour, but it can stretch before and after. If you must drive in the morning, 7 a.m. is better than 8 a.m. Avoid traveling during heavy school transportation hours (around 2-3 p.m.) and on Friday evenings before a holiday weekend. Finally, avoid inclement weather conditions.
However, if you are taking a longer journey, you’ll need some additional prep.
Preparing for a Long Trip
Sometimes long trips are required, however. Whether this is a holiday, a journey to a specialist our child needs, or just visiting family, take special precautions when preparing your car for a road trip with your child.
Before leaving, check all of the following:
- Check that your car has enough fluids, including engine oil, power steering and transmission fluid, brake fluid, coolant, and windshield wiper fluid.
- Be sure the tires are in acceptable condition for a long-haul trip. Have them weatherized for your journey. Always check tire pressure, treads, and traction, and look for exposed wires. Be sure to have a working spare.
- Make sure the brakes and battery are in optimal condition.
- Check all the lights: turn signal, brake lights, high and low beam headlights, and backup lights.
- Stock a repair kit and emergency supplies, such as road flares, jumper cables, flashlights, tire pressure gauge, and tool kit. Weather-related tools may be required, such as an ice scraper.
Pack a cooler or bag with snacks for your child and have plenty of water bottles on hand for long journeys. Keep a portable charger with a full charge on hand as well.
Driving safely with a child with autism may seem difficult. However, if you are well-prepared, it could be smooth going. Take these steps to keep your family safe during a car ride so you can avoid distractions while you drive.