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10 Tips for Running Errands with a Special Needs Child

Over the years we've had our fair share of issues when it comes to running errands with our four special needs children.  Each kiddo is so different with their own set of triggers, sensory issues, and anxieties.  I thought that by our fourth child, we'd be experts. Little did I know we were entering a whole new realm of difficult.

I'm not exaggerating when I say it's taken years to figure out how to be successful running errands with Sunshine.  It's only now that I feel confident sharing our 10 tips for running errands with a special needs child.

10 tips for running errands with a special needs child
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I remember Dinomite becoming so extremely upset when people would not say hello to him at the store.  He did not understand social cues.  Dinomite has always been extremely sensitive to sounds, smells and touches as well.

But despite all of this, I don't ever remember him melting down except for when it was time leave the house to run errands and when we'd transition back to the car after errands.  And then... Oh my!


When Bulldozer was an infant and toddler and we'd run errands or go anywhere, he would lose all expression on his face and revert back into his own world.  He could not NOT touch things.  And if he was extremely overstimulated, (basically every time we went to Walmart) he would end up in a heap on the floor unable to walk.

If didn't end up on the floor Bulldozer would wander.  He would become so easily distracted.  It's not that he was trying to run, he just went where he wanted to go, thankfully he moved slowly.


Princess would jump all over the place and still does.  She just can not keep still.  Safety goes out the window when we're outside of our home.  Her eyes are also an issue.  She is extremely sensitive to light.  If Princess doesn't have her sunglasses, she has a rough time.

Needless to say I've been the recipient of many stares, glares, and unsolicited words of wisdom by total strangers who feel it's their right to tell me how to parent.  Truth be told I became used to this.  But nothing could prepare me for what running errands would be like with Sunshine.


Now let me give Sunshine credit where credit is due.  It took her until the age of three before she would sit in a car seat, stroller, or cart without freaking out.  A freak out always includes a raging meltdown with physical aggression.  These freak outs would last until she was removed from the situation.  She is now okay when seated on the go.  This is HUGE!

It took over a year for Sunshine to show consistent success while running a single short errand with Daddy or Mommy.  By short I mean there was one purpose or one item that needed to be purchased at a single store.  We practiced at least a couple times each week.

Success meant that she didn't rage or become physically aggressive and she stayed safe.  Sunshine loves to run off and go with anyone. At times she also likes to be inappropriate with her words.  But now, she can usually do a pretty good job following the rules.

It took a very long time to understand Sunshine's sensory issues, triggers, and anxieties.  We used our incident questionnaire on a regular basis to put the pieces together.  Once we understood what was going on, which was a mix of everything, we went to work on a plan so that we could once again run errands as a family and have a pleasant experience while doing so.

10 Tips for Running Errands with a Special Needs Child

1.  Map out a plan ahead of time.
Sunshine really struggles with transitions especially when she doesn't know what's coming next, or if it's not something she likes.  If we make a plan ahead of time and share it with her, she is less anxious and therefore transitions better while on the go.

2.  Stick to the plan.
Changes in routine or even in purchases can really wreak havoc with Sunshine.  If we stick to the plan, she can usually hold herself together, but if we don't, most often either myself or my husband end up in the van with a raging child.

3. Create a visual schedule.
We love to use our visual schedule flip book when running errands.  It includes a picture for every store and errand we may need to run, placed in order so Sunshine knows where we're going and when. She keeps it with her so she feels more in control and knows where we've been and where we're going.

4.  Build incentives and reinforcers into your plans and schedule.
Sunshine loves to eat out at restaurants.  We use this to our advantage, planning some of our most challenging errands before mealtime so she has a reason to keep it together and function well.

5.  Bring yummy snacks and drinks along.
There are times when incentives and reinforcers are just not enough, especially in places like Walmart and shoe stores.  In those moments a yummy snack or drink can be a great distraction and enough to keep things going smoothly.  Sometimes the drive thru window works as well.

6.  Have games or activities ready for when waiting in line.
Sunshine may do extremely well while in a store, but then falls apart while waiting in line to pay.  This is why we have a few games prepared for when she needs them.  Sometimes we' play I Spy.  Other times it's Guess Who with Disney Characters.  Then there are times when we sing songs.  It all depends on her mood.

7.  Bring along a travel size sensory kit.
We can never predict when there will be some type of construction, when people are waxing the floors, or if there's a lawn mower right outside the door.  Sometimes a baby may be screaming.  It's at these times that Sunshine's sound blocking headphones and comfy blanket come in handy, along with other items from her sensory kit.  Her wallet is a favorite as she loves to collect receipts.

8.  Dress appropriately.
This may seem like a given, but with Sunshine it's a pretty big deal. Appropriately means no hair ties, buttons, snaps, zippers, or sequins.  Sunshine feels most comfortable in a pair of leggings and a t-shirt.  Anything else and the added sensory input may just put her over the edge.  Oh, and she's always cold, so another layer packed just in case is a necessity.

9.  Make the special needs known.
This may be the opposite of what you may want to do, but in circumstances where the child is raging and physically aggressive, using our handicap stroller or those wonderful new handicap carts for older children are such a blessing.  Not only do they provide a safe way for you to transport your child from the store to the car if need be, but they alert everyone of what you're dealing with.

Using a handicap stroller or cart also helps when you have a child who can't be safe or still, or for one who runs or wanders.

10.  Don't skip on sleep.
Waking up early, staying out late, or skipping nap time when running errands is a sure recipe for disaster.  Plan your schedule accordingly.  So many meltdowns can be avoided, by following this simple tip.  Sunshine NEEDS her nap everyday.  When she doesn't get it, we know a raging meltdown will occur.

Errand days are a lot of work, but it's worth it when we can all go out together and enjoy ourselves.  Learning and following these 10 tips for running errands with a special needs child have been crucial to our success.  If we choose not to follow even of them, we pay the price.  It's our hope that they can help you too.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy the posts below.

10 Ways to Help Family with Special Needs Children 4 Steps to Managing Aggressive Behaviors Overcoming Struggles with Autism Mothers When Did We Stop Supporting Each Other? Special Needs Event Planner Sensory resources for children who need to chew
This post is part of the Parenting Children with Special Needs Series.  If you'd like to read more excellent posts in the series, click the links below!
Dear Mom at the Park | This Outnumbered Mama

10 tips for running errands with a special needs child


  1. Having a stash of snacks was huge for us... and making a visual schedule that my daughter could carry with her. And, of course, for kids who need the predictability; sticking with the plan was key.

  2. Great tips here Renae! #2 is the most important one for us, even now - stick to the plan. We also build in reinforcements and rewards, either having morning tea or lunch out or catering to a special interest (watching the escalators, having a ride in the lift, checking out the pay phones)