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, and how you’ll pack, move, and unpack your things. 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.