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.

Third small step: child gets used to seat belt

When the child is comfortably sitting in the car, show him how to touch or pull the seat belt; tag and reinforce those behaviors. The tag points would be: Touch Seat Belt or Pull Seat Belt. Using a stuffed animal, show how the seat belt holds the stuffed animal in place. If the child can do it, ask him to belt in the stuffed animal. Tag and reinforce. The tag point would be Buckle Stuffed Animal. Show how to unbuckle the stuffed animal, and tag and reinforce. The tag point would be Unbuckle Stuffed Animal. If the child cannot buckle the seat belt by himself, do it together or have him touch the clip that holds the belt. Let the child practice with the stuffed animal until he is proficient at buckling and unbuckling his animal friend.

Fourth small step: child puts on seatbelt

When the child has buckled in the stuffed animal, show how he can pull or touch his own seatbelt, and tag and reinforce. Tag points would be: Touch Seat belt or Pull Seat belt. When the child agrees to have the seat elt buckled, give a big reward! Continue tagging and reinforcing the child for Sitting In Seatbelt. Then, work on extending the time he sits in the seat belt. Play counting games or ask, “Can you sit for 10 seconds? 20 seconds? A minute?” Give huge reinforcers for each of these steps.

Fifth small step: child plays with toys in car

When the child is comfortably sitting in the car, both with the seatbelt, get in the car and hand him some toys, books or activity items. Tag and reinforce. Tag points would be Touch Toy, Touch Item, Touch Book.

Sixth small step: turn on car in driveway

After the child is comfortable sitting in the car with the seatbelt on and can touch a toy or the stuffed animal, turn the car on and let it run for a short time in the driveway. Continue tagging and reinforcing the child for sitting and touching a toy while the car is running. Look for other good behaviors to tag and reinforce such as Quiet Mouth, Hands Still or Feet Still.

Seventh small step: go around the block

After the child is comfortable sitting in the car in the driveway, drive the car up and down the driveway a few times, or go down the street a short distance. If possible, have a helper in the car to tag and reinforce the child for Quiet Mouth, Touch Toy or Touch Stuffed Animal.

Eighth small step: a short trip

When the child is safely seated in the car, go on a short trip to a favored destination. Make a picture page of the destination and include pictures of any applicable people, objects or activities that occur in that place. If possible, have someone else drive, or have a helper to tag and reinforce the child for Quiet Mouth, Hands Still, Feet Still, Touch Toy, Touch Stuffed Animal or Hold Picture Page.

At any point, if the child becomes agitated and wants to get out, let him get out or go home as soon as possible; giving him control will reduce agitation. Over time, he will be able to go on longer car trips. It may also be helpful to have a picture of the house available, so he knows he will always go home after riding in the car.

Last step: keep practicing, tagging and reinforcing

Continue tagging and reinforcing your child for the many good car behaviors he now has: Quiet Mouth, Hands Still, Feet Still, Touch Toy, Touch Book, Hold Picture Page. Continuous practice will teach your child that the car is a nice place to be, plus he will end up in nice places like the playground, the ice cream shop, or grandma’s house. Best of all, the car will bring him home again.

With TAGteach, a parent can teach a child the behaviors necessary for family car trips in a gentle, positive way. The child experiences success at multiple steps in the process, and the parent experiences the thrill of teaching a new and important skill to the child.

What is TAGteach?

TAGteach stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. TAGteach is a teaching and communication method based on the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

TAGteach enables extremely precise positive reinforcement of behavior by using an acoustical signal to “mark” the behavior – at the precise moment the child performs the behavior! The acoustical signal is a short, sharp sound made by a handheld device (the “tagger”). When the child performs the correct action, the parent/instructor immediately presses the button on the tagger and hands over a treat (candy, treat, token, praise, social recognition, or money) as a reinforcer.

With TAGteach, it is easy to reinforce behaviors precisely, quickly, and intensively. The immediate, accurate feedback and positive reinforcement result in the child performing the correct action more often, and for longer periods of time. With immediate feedback and learning tasks broken down into small steps, children (and adults) can learn many new skills with TAGteach — at their own pace.

autism, ABA, positive reinforcementFor more information visit the TAGteach website.

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Martha Gabler

Autism parent. Director, Kids' Learning Workshop LLC. Author of Chaos to Calm: Discovering Solutions to the Everyday Problems of Living with Autism.

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