With summer break fast approaching, many of us have fond memories of our parents loading us into the car with the dog, camping equipment, and supplies and setting off on a family road trip, singing all the way. But for many of us, these fond recollections remain firmly in the past, never to be repeated.
Why is that? Why do we suddenly dread long car journeys with the family? Many parents of children on the autism spectrum resonate with this feeling of trepidation, as children with autism are frequently affected by motion sickness.
This is due to an over-responsive vestibular system, which is located in the eyes and inner ears and regulates our sense of balance.
When the vestibular system is not working as it should, the eyes do not register movement, but the inner ears do (or vice versa), so the brain receives conflicting signals and can’t make sense of it.
That sensory conflict is believed to be the basis for motion sickness, meaning long car journeys, especially in warm weather, are simply not an option for many spectrum families.
Because we live several hours away from family, my daughter and I have little option but to grit our teeth and brave the traffic. I’m relieved to say that she happily travels by car now without any issues, which is a far cry from how she used to be.
How did we manage this? Was it the changes I put in place over the years, or did she just grow out of it? The good news is, lots of kids can and do grow out of motion sickness by the time they reach puberty.
If your kid is prone to car sickness, here are a few measures you can consider — take it from someone who has learned the hard way.
The most important rule of all is to know your child’s window of wellness. The window of wellness is the length of time your child enjoys good health before nausea begins to take hold. Stop and take a break before you reach that time. For instance, my child could not stomach more than 50 minutes of travel time before she was sick.
If we were on a long journey, we had to stop the car and stretch our legs every 45 minutes without fail. You’ll probably find as the months go by, that your child’s window of wellness will increase steadily until you are only stopping for a bathroom break or to grab a coffee.
Second, plan your route, taking careful note of all the pit stops on the way so you can make good use of them.
Here’s a checklist of things to consider before you hit the road:
1. No smells allowed
- Remove any car scents or air fresheners at least 24 hours before the journey.
- The day before (and on the day of the journey), don’t use any strong spices in your cooking (garlic, curry powder, etc).
- When showering that morning, use only perfume-free products on your body.
- Is your shampoo and conditioner scented? Then just rinse and dry your hair instead.
- Use only fragrance-free deodorant.
- If you must use hair products, they must be fragrance-free. Do without if you can. This includes gel, mousse, pomade, hairspray, oils, the lot!
- No scented face creams or cosmetics.
- No scented body lotions.
- No scented talcum powder.
- No scented hand cream.
- Absolutely, positively no perfume (this includes clothes that may have been worn when you were wearing perfume on a previous day).
- Do not use any scented fabric detergent or conditioner on your clothes.
- Remember – this goes for ALL car occupants (teenagers, you have been warned!)
2. Cover up
- Cover the upholstery in an old bed sheet or with disposable towels. Cover the floor and the backs of the front seats as well.
3. Wear old clothes (both you and your child).
4. Eyes in front
- Ensure your child has a completely uninterrupted view of the road ahead.
- If you don’t have a passenger travelling in the front seat, then remove the passenger head restraint.
- Place your child’s car seat directly behind the passenger seat, giving them a completely unobscured view of the road.
- I like to download movies to a tablet, then mount the tablet to the windshield on the passenger side, encouraging my child to look straight ahead. Make sure the earphones have a long enough cable! If you are not comfortable with this option, you might want to consider an audiobook, or a CD with songs your child likes.
- I was never comfortable having my young child sit in the front passenger seat, but you may be perfectly happy with this. Do what works for you.
- If you are going to have a passenger in the front, check to see if the car seat is stable in the middle seat at the back and place it there. That way, your child can still have an uninterrupted view of the road ahead.
- There must be absolutely nothing to look at or play with (except the movie if that’s the route you’re taking, no pun intended). No books, dolls, games, or anything at all to catch your child’s eye or that your child can play with.
5. Up front, have a natural anti-sickness remedy ready to grab, such as Queasy Pops, a bottle of water, baby wipes, an old towel, a kidney dish, or other receptacle. (I placed these under a black towel, so it merged into the black car upholstery, completely unnoticed).
6. Pack an extra towel, extra baby wipes, a change of clothes, and an extra bottle of water in the trunk.
7. Before you go, consider having your child wear motion sickness bands or take a motion sickness tablet. I found the bands to be more effective.
8. Have a light meal about 2 hours before you leave (if not too early a start).
9. If there are going to be other passengers in the car, brief them beforehand on the rules about scents, the frequency of pit stops, and of course, tell them to be kind to the child if they are sick. He or she will already be feeling miserable, so let’s not make them feel any worse, okay?
10. Remember, it will get easier!
This article was featured in Issue 103 – Supporting Emotional Needs