There’s a reason moving is considered one of the top five most stressful situations in life, right up there with divorce, job loss, major illness, and the death of a loved one. It’s no secret why. In addition to being a major hassle, it disrupts your life in ways that push even the most organized, experienced adults to their mental and physical limits.
For a child, coping with the stress of moving is even more difficult. Even if they don’t have to change schools, even if there is no co-occurring trauma like divorce, and also if they’ve been through it before, a child’s still-developing brain is not well-equipped for the challenge of relocating their entire life. A negative response can be immediate and impossible to ignore, occurring in the form of tantrums, outbursts, trouble eating, or disturbed sleep. Some older or more reserved children may respond more subtly or over time, showing up as depression or anxiety.
Moreover, the traumatic effects of moving can be even more pronounced for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Every child is different, but it’s not uncommon for children on the spectrum to be hyper-dependent upon routine and structure. They may also have trouble expressing themselves, preventing them from being able to verbalize their specific fears and hesitations.
Unfortunately, there is no way to make moving pleasant, but there is good news. As a parent or caregiver, there are steps you can take throughout the move to make the experience easier for your child with ASD, starting with writing your own story — one with a happy ending.
Create a Narrative
For children with ASD, communication is critical. Put simply, you should explain to your child the who, what, when, where, why, and how of moving. Tell them where you’re moving and why. (Use an age-appropriate, but true, reason, if necessary.) Let them know that the people and belongings they love and care about will be moving with them. Let them know when you’ll begin the moving process, how long it will take, how you’ll pack, move, and unpack your things, and if you’ll hire a mover or other pros to help. All the while, use a positive tone that conveys that everything is going to be OK. Being aware of the process will allow your child to begin to understand it and, ultimately, come to terms with it.
One favorite way of doing this is to create a social story — or several — depicting the transition. Many children on the spectrum are visual learners who do better with concrete information, as opposed to abstract concepts. That’s why social stories work. They take specific situations that are difficult to grasp, like moving to a new home or changing schools, and explain them. What’s more, they walk the child through the emotions they may feel, how they might expect others to act during the process, as well as healthy responses to each.
When creating your own social story, consider these tips:
- Design your story to address one problem, situation, or desired outcome. Use different stories for different aspects of the move, like enrolling in a new school or taking a long car ride to the new home, to keep the story from being too long.
- When possible, use real pictures of your family, as well as your names and other personal details. Ask your real estate agent to send you photos from the new home to incorporate.
- Be truthful and accurate, but always speak in a positive tone. You should also highlight the positive aspects of the move — decorating a new bedroom, having a bigger backyard to play in, or being closer to activities and people they love, for example.
- Use simple language that is easy for your little one to understand and repeat.
- Have the child present the story to their family and friends as a way of building confidence around the situation.
In addition to the custom solution a social story provides, you can also use existing books, movies, and music to familiarize your child with the moving process from the eyes of another child, family, or fictional character. Here’s how:
- Use your child’s favorite storytellers. If there is a series or character your child already loves, you can probably make a connection between your child’s situation and theirs. A simple online search will reveal whether the cast of Sesame Street, The Berenstain Bears, or Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood have ever had to move. (They have!)
- Introduce moving-specific storylines. There are dozens of books and movies out there written specifically to help children cope with relocating. Check them out from the library or order them online, and then just read, watch, and repeat.
In addition to talking to your child, you should also take the time to listen and observe. Most importantly, ask your child how he or she is feeling about the move. Even if your little one can’t put into words what they are feeling, chances are you know them well enough to discern what parts of the moving process are making them most anxious. Additionally, be on the lookout for new behaviors and differing emotional responses at home or school. Every tantrum, outburst, or breakdown is another opportunity to reassure your child that everything will be OK.
In addition to telling and showing your child how a move will affect them, there are some more tangible steps you can take to ease them through the transition. Keep in mind that every child is different, and what calms one little person may trigger another. Use your best judgment and parental instincts to determine which of these ideas may benefit your kid, and don’t be afraid to change tactics mid-stride if your strategy doesn’t seem to be working.
During the move, pack your child’s belongings last, and unpack them first. Allow your child to help as much or as little as they feel comfortable. If they are anxious about all of their belongings making it to the new house, ask them to make a checklist of beloved items. Then, let them help you pack and label them. Consider investing in clear, plastic tubs instead of plain cardboard boxes. This way, your child can keep an eye on their stuff. You may even be able to transport a container of their special items in the car with you.
Your list of action items should also include creating a space in the new home where your child feels safe and comfortable. For some children, this may mean organizing and decorating their new room to mimic their old one. While the layout and size of the room will likely vary, taking care to position furniture, wall hangings, and toys in the same relative positions can help your little one regain a sense of familiarity in your new home. Other children may see a new room as a chance to choose new decor. Allowing them to choose what color to paint a wall or pick out a new bedding set may be just the thing your child needs to get excited about his new space.
If your new home comes with a backyard, you may also want to invest some time and energy into creating an outdoor space specifically for your child with ASD before you move in or shortly after. Installing a sandbox or water table costs anywhere from $30 to $500 and are great activities that develop skills and stimulate their senses. A local playground installer can help you come up with some great ideas to make the most of your space. It would help if you also designed an area of the yard as a haven — somewhere your child can go when he or she is feeling overstimulated.
Ultimately, finding a new normal is going to take time. Even after everything is moved and unpacked, leave space for your child to change his or her mind. While you may not be able to repaint their room, you can rearrange it or replace their new comforter with their old, familiar one.
Consistency is Key
The more prepared your child is for each part of the journey, the more likely their acceptance of it. As you probably already know, that means repeating the narrative you’ve created over and over and over again. During a move, that’s going to be more difficult than usual. You’ll be busy packing, loading, unloading, and unpacking, not to mention completing all of the administrative tasks that come with moving. (Think address changes, projects around the house, and other odds and ends.) Just remember, the time and energy you spend helping your child understand the process will come back to you in the end in a great way. So, start early, repeat often, and — perhaps most importantly — don’t stop reassuring your child until they have adjusted to all of the changes in their lives.