Children with special needs often need special car seats to be safe when being transported.
It can be a challenge to find the right fit based on various physical or behavioral challenges each child experiences.
Many children with special needs exhibit disruptive behaviors as part of their disability. Some of these children have a propensity to unbuckle, their restraints. They may require a special harness or vest to keep them secure. Children with autism, for example, can be compulsive and have challenges with hyperactivity. Proper restraint is important because these children often don’t understand the danger of roaming around the vehicle.
Parents should not try to modify the child’s current seat as it may take away from the crash tested safety of that seat. Rather they should search for a child restraint with different type of buckle or clips that are more difficult for the child to unbuckle like two-handed chest clip release.
Some parents find the RideSafer a solution as the buckle is different than other restraints. Other children will need to go so far as to have restraints which have the closures in the back like the Ez-On harness.
Children with special needs also have physical challenges which we need to work around with their child restraints. For example, some children with autism have sensory issues and prefer a tight fit to a lighter touch of straps. Again many parents say the RideSafer vest, made of soft fabric and padding, is like a hug or the weighted vest some of these children use.
Other children may have poor motor control and need the restraint to help them sit in proper position and stay in place. Sometimes children have GI tubes that need to be accommodated. Some children may have a temporary special need because of a arm or leg cast.
Availability of Special Needs Car Seats
Whenever possible we want to keep them in a conventional 5-point harness as they are more reasonably priced and accessible. We also recommend keeping a child with special needs rear facing for as long as possible.
However, some needs require specialized seats. In general, specialized or adaptive special needs car seats are designed specifically for children with special health care needs. Most are not available at retail stores but can be purchased through a therapist or medical device company.
Many of these special needs car seats can be very expensive ranging from several hundred to even thousands of dollars.
- RideSafer Travel Vest, $165-$229. Comes in three sizes. When used with tether strap, offers additional support and restraint. Parents find it useful for many special needs at a reasonable price. Many parents report their escapee child finally staying restrained. Others report their child found a way out. Can be purchased from a retailer. But some children will need more support or a restraint that is more difficult to get themselves out of.
- EZ-On Vest, call a distributor for prices. Comes in various styles, including one with a back closure for those escapee children who can get out of everything else.
- Merritt, call for dealer prices. This manufacturer offers a line of child restraints from the Hope Car Bed for infants to the Chamberlain which goes up to 225 lbs.
- Wallaroo, $900. A forward-facing car seat provides support with a variety of optional accessories for those that need extra positioning in a vehicle with an upper weight limit of 106 lbs.
- Columbia Spirit, $1500. A forward-facing restraint for children with special needs that are unable to sit upright without support with an upper weight limit of 130 lbs.
- Carrot 3 Booster, $2500. Engineered to provide optimal positioning for children with insufficient head, trunk, and pelvic stability. A comprehensive seat for children, teens and small adults. Has a weight range from 79 to 165 lbs.
Some special needs car seats may be covered under insurance with sufficient documentation. But they are not always covered. Some you may be able to rent if it’s only needed for a short term basis like to accommodate a hip cast.
An accessible car seat solution for parents of Children with Special Needs
Keep your kids Safe and Comfortable with the RideSafer Travel Vest. Even children with special needs are fans of this wearable wonder!
Our son hates his car seat…always has. He has spent the last 6 years screaming every time we went anywhere, no matter how far away. He has cerebral palsy and needs a little help for his trunk support. This vest is fabulous. He loves riding in the car now. It was a night and day difference immediately. His comfort level is perfect now. I also feel that he is a lot safer since the vest holds him securely, better than the straps/buckles on the car seats. — Esther Lockerby, mother
Our son has a sensory processing disorder, which is frequently part of autism (considered a spectrum disorder). He has problems with certain stimuli as well as huge struggles when things change. We were worried about the vest, but let him pick it and got him used to the idea until it came. Now it’s hard to get him to take it off. He loves it. I think the snug fit helps (sort of working like weighted blankets). He also likes the routine – we do the Velcro, he does the buckle. He buckles himself into the car without struggling with the bulky car seat as we have a narrow car and 3 kids in car seats, and that gives him control and independence – something he struggles with. We also feel like he’s a lot safer now because he tended to slump over and fall asleep in his booster and for some reason with the vest, he stays upright when he falls asleep. It is working great for him. — a parent in Everett, WA
Additional tips to remember
1 – If you can, have an adult ride next to the child to help remind them to stay seated properly or attend to any needs.
2 – If you have an escapee, pull the car over to get your child restrained again.
3 – Reward good behavior.
By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004
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We originally published this post in October 2017. We updated the article for accuracy and comprehensiveness.