The difficult car trip: Some suggestions for addressing a common problem for autism parents

four kids in a car in bright clothes with seat belts on, smiling and happy

Recently, a person sent a query asking what to do about a child who has severe anxiety when riding in the car.

Good car behavior is critical for the well-being of the family. It is worth the time and effort to teach the child how to behave properly in the car and to feel calm and happy when riding in the car. TAGteach is an excellent and easy way to build these skills in small increments. With TAGteach, you “tag” a desired behavior of the child with an event marker signal (often a clicker) and then “reinforce” (give a treat of the child’s liking). TAGteach allows the child to experience success for very small behaviors that eventually add up to a strong, complex behavior.

First small step: show that the car is not harmful

Instead of taking an anxious child out in the car, start by showing the child that the car is just an object on the driveway. Park the car on the driveway and tag and reinforce the child every time he looks at or walks near the car. Here are some potential movements to tag: Child walks next to car, Tag and Reinforce. Child stands next to car, Tag and Reinforce. Child touches or opens car door, Tag and Reinforce. Child walks to another door, Tag and Reinforce. Child touches or opens another door, Tag and Reinforce. Child glances inside car, Tag and Reinforce. Give the child as much time as he needs to become comfortable around the exterior of the car. Spend a few minutes several times a day working around the exterior of the car.

Second small step: child gets into car

Once the child is comfortable around the exterior of the car, work on making the child comfortable in the interior. Bring the child to the car and open the doors. Place toys and some lollipops on the seats. Wait to see if the child goes into the car. Tag and reinforce all physical movements related to getting into the car: potential tag points are Hand On Car, Foot On Car Step, Head Poking In Car, Climbing Into Car. Let the child explore at his own pace; refrain from urging him to go into the car. Let him take his time.

When it finally happens and the child gets in the car, tag and reinforce! This should earn a huge reinforcer! Keep practicing Child Gets In Car until he is comfortable. Continue observing the child and tag and reinforce every time he sits on the seat; this would earn another huge reinforcer! Keep practicing Child Sits In Seat and tag and reinforce the child every time he does it. Offer toys or activity items to the child and tag and reinforce every time he touches an item; the tag point would be Touch Toy.

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