Deliver Me From the Holiday Road Trip to Hell

We're driving from San Francisco to Phoenix next week, to spend Christmas with thirteen much-loved family members. The "we" in this scenario is me, my husband, and our three children -- one of whom is a ten-year-old boy with rather intense autism. We've never been on a road trip this long, not as a family of five. I keep wavering between tentative optimism and freaking out, so perhaps you can tell me: Are we delusional? Can this trip succeed?

Our holiday adventure will take us outside several established comfort zones, well beyond the scope of the holiday survival guidelines for families of kids with special needs that I wrote for BlogHer last year. Where those tips were based on our own experiences and careful planning, this holiday season will be a trip to IRL Frontierland, for several reasons.

1) We've never taken a family road trip where the driving lasted more than eight hours. Driving to Phoenix takes more than twelve, probably closer to sixteen, as we'll be covering 750 miles. Leo is a good sport in the car in contrast to his sisters, whose favorite road trip game is renacting The Simpsons kids' Are We There Yet? But even so I'm guessing we'll need to stop midway through and find a motel. My husband and I are ourselves cross-country road trip veterans, but the last time we attempted a multi-day road trip with children was when eleven-year-old Iz was four months old -- and all it took to keep her perky was everyone in the car singing "Surrey With the Fringe on Top". Unfortunately, I don't think Rodgers & Hammerstein will be a panacea for all three kids. Not yet.

2) We're staying with extended family. By extended I mean that with all my brothers and their families and my mom and my husband's parents, we'll be constantly socializing with nearly twenty people. We adore them all as long as my brothers don't sneak off to golf leaving all our kids' cousins behind for us to watch. But that's also a lot of filial frolicking for Leo, plus it leaves us open to confusion and delay -- it's a problem for our boy if his visual schedule tells him we're leaving and thirty minutes later we're still waiting for straggling uncles to appear. Large group herding takes not just planning but cooperation -- and we can only truly rely on the former. *Chest tightening*

3) We're staying in an unfamiliar place, with an unfamiliar layout. My generous mother, the orchestratrix of our week-long stay, is treating each of her children to individual two-bedroom condos for our families, courtesy of her time share. But these are new condos that Leo does not know and may find alienating and which I really hope will provide sufficient space for Leo and his sisters to mark out their territtories, as close quarters generally lead to bickering at the minimum, shrieking if matters escalate, and attempted violence if we are not able to intervene quickly enough. We'll be bringing Leo's iPad, of course, but as entertaining and helpful as that device is for Leo, it's not going to keep him engaged indefinitely -- we'll need to support his happiness with extra activities, and try to find some good hiking.

We love our family, which is why we have agreed to meet them in Phoenix, a town I do not love at all, and whose special needs-specific charms I am certainly not familiar with. We have several lovely friends working on finding us local respite to help Leo through potential late afternoon witching hours, and my mother has guaranteed us that our lodgings have not one but two pools, so that should help. I will be bringing activities, materials, and planning out a schedule for the week. My husband spent four hours this past weekend making new icons for Leo's visual schedule. We'll be as prepared as we can be. But I'm still worried about all the new variables for this trip that commences in a mere six days.

I'm not usually such a worry wart, not without extreme circumstances. Last week my car broke down while I was lined up to get gas at Costco. During rush hour. While I had all three kids with me. In the pouring rain. Still, I remained calm and panic-free because the situation was entirely manageable: We have AAA roadside rescue, the tow truck came quickly, so did my wonderful friend Jen with her minivan that could accommodate the four of us when the tow truck could not, and all three kids remained calm throughout what I kept calling our "adventure." (Bonus: I already know what I'm getting for Christmas: a new starter for my car!) I'm worried about our trip because, as with my car suddenly dying, I can't anticipate all the hiccups. And I certainly can't guarantee that Leo will react as calmly as he did to our gas station crisis.

So, please help me! What do you do to keep your quirky kids entertained on extended road trips? What can a party of nearly 20 people do for fun in the Phoenix/Scottsdale region? (Note: We're avoiding the Grand Canyon, much as I'd like my kids to see it. Leo sometimes thinks it's funny to bolt & run away. I don't want my boy anywhere near a cliff.) I know that if things with Leo start heading nadir-wards, either my husband or I can get on a plane with him and be home in a scant few hours -- but I'd like to avoid blowing the escape hatch, if we can. Aside from planning and scheduling and planning and scheduling, hiring respite help during our stay, and cloning myself and my husband, what can I do to increase the chances that our holiday trip to Phoenix will be a success?

Tips and travelogues from families with all different kinds of kids:

Shannon Des Roches Rosa really hopes this holiday road trip will set the stage for even bigger and more extended family travels, which she will then document at,, and

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