Planning a road trip with a sensory sensitive child

November 20, 20180

By Lara Moes

These holidays my family and I are embarking on a road trip. Three children in the backseat means that thinking of ideas to help us really enjoy each other’s close company is front of my mind. Here’s an inside look at how I’m approaching it with my Occupational Therapist’s (OT) hat on.

When designing an approach to assist a child, an OT is trained to consider and assess three key factors:

  • The individual person – physical skills, sensory processing, thinking skills, social skills, personality, interests and beliefs
  • The activity, task or role – the task being asked of the individual
  • The environment – the people, place, culture and expectations that the individual will come into contact with during the activity or task.

Here’s what planning may look like for a child who will be sitting with their siblings in the backseat of a car for a 12 hour drive.


Very noise sensitive.
Doesn’t like others in her personal space.
Can hit out and get aggressive if others get in his/her space or are noisy.
Likes to chew on things.
Happy to sit still for a long time.
Likes reading and can read in the car without getting carsick.
Believes that a car trip with his/her siblings is going to be painful.
Can’t fall asleep in the car.
Being a passenger in a car for 12 hours.Air-conditioned 5 seater car.
Child and his/her two younger siblings sitting in backseat.
Parents in front seats.
Access to car stereo, as well as headphones and his/her own iPod.
Travelling during the day.
Siblings very active and in the past have had difficulty keeping to their own space in the car.
Parents will be upset by siblings fighting and being noisy if older child becomes aggressive.
Parents very motivated to support the older child and help him/her cope.

SUPPORTS: An individualised troubleshooting guide with the child to both prevent and manage stressors in the car.

Make sure child has packed a bag with sensory supports

  • Headphones
  • iPod with audiobooks of interest downloaded as well as favourite music.
  • Books to read
  • Own cold water bottle and snacks including chewing gum or lollipops (as sucking and chewing regulate respiration which helps keep the body calmer)

Decide on a communication plan with parents if getting overwhelmed by anything like his/her siblings or noise – a key word, communication card or conversation with parents could be used and the plan could be to pull over at the nearest rest stop, or that his/her parents intervene with the other children

Break the trip down into sections.
Photocopy or print the map for the child so he/she knows his/her location, how far along the route is and how long there is to go before the next stop.
Provide information about stops and final destination to help positive and excited feelings. Providing pictures of landmarks or destinations can help a child who is overwhelmed when their language and reasoning brain functions are harder for them to access.
Parents plan route and refreshment stops ahead of time, including considering where toilets will be located.
Parents think through a game plan for maintaining a fun and excited atmosphere for both themselves and the children – how to manage their own emotions as well as tools to keep themselves and their other children happy e.g. give each child some spending money to choose a snack at each rest break.

Here’s to your safe and happy travels!

We hope these strategies help with managing long car trips this summer but if you decide you would like to look further into the sensory needs of your child or if you would like to find out more about what can be done to help, please contact one of our clinics.