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Tips for Moving When Your Child Has Autism

If your child has autism and you're planning to move, make sure you prepare well in advance with these tips.

April is National Autism Awareness Month. It's also the start of the peak season for movers across the country. If you happen to have a child with autism and you are planning to move this month, it may be good to review some best practices for ensuring a smooth transition.

The first step for parents is to understand that every kid is different, and that you and your child's doctor alone will know what may work best for him or her. Officially known as Autism Spectrum Disorder, signaling a range of disabilities, symptoms and levels of impairment rather than one set condition. As such, as you read the following advice, keep in mind that these are general strategies, and that what may be a good plan for one child may not be for another. If you're unsure about what to do, be sure to contact a medical professional for further advice. The following moving tips, however, may be used as an introduction of what to expect and potential ways for approaching the situation.

Understanding environment

People living with ASD may have symptoms such as social impairment, communication difficulties and repetitive behaviors according to the National Institutes of Health. They may have trouble expressing their thoughts and feelings in traditional ways or respond unusually to other people's emotions. They also may become obsessed with routine, whether it's focused on the organization of their toys or the kinds of meals they'll be willing to eat. Even slight changes in routine or environment may elicit strong emotional reactions. 

Moving, then, poses a particular challenge. It generally involves a complete change of environment. It also entails a disruption and potentially permanent alteration of daily habits. While moving, parents should maintain structure and minimize disruption as much as possible before, during and after the move. It may be helpful to keep in mind the acronym SPELL, which, according to the US Autism & Asperger Association stands for structure, positive (approaches), empathy, low arousal and links, the last of which refers to communication between parents, caretakers and other professionals.

Preparing for the move

The biggest hurdle for beginning a move is breaking the news. You'll want to introduce the idea many months in advance, and in a gradual fashion. This may involve simply talking about the concept of moving to begin with. Then discuss the reasons for moving, the changes that are involved and the forthcoming process of the move. The earlier they have this information to process, the better. the National Autistic Society also suggests emphasizing all of the positive reasons for moving, such as getting an extra bedroom or getting away from noisy cars. Give as much detail and structure to the process as you can if it will help your child.

How you convey this information may vary depending on the child. If they understand better visually, then pictures may be used to communicate the idea of the move. It may also be useful to present a calendar highlighting the day of the move as well as all of the major events leading up to it, including packing days, house visits and major cleans.

During the day

The actual act of moving can be particularly tough. However, if you've acclimated your child to the idea of moving well in advance, you may have already made the task easier. Some children may benefit from being able to participate, and it's worth giving them tasks, such as packing their room or labeling boxes. Others may prefer not to be around, in which case it may be nice to plan a day's worth of activities. Again, it's best to choose something they'll enjoy, let them know what the activities are well in advance and when exactly they'll be moving to the new home. Keep in mind that moving day will be filled with loud noises and abrupt environmental change that some children will not like.

Settling in

Getting any child used to a new environment can be difficult, and in the case of kids with autism, it may require plenty of effort. it's in this step of the process that SPELL can become essential. Establish a structured environment as soon as possible, starting with the bedroom. Once unpacked, they'll have at least one space in the house that's organized according to their needs. Familiarize them with the neighborhood, the new routes to school and any of the new routines, giving them time to adjust.

At the same time, try to make their new routine as similar as possible to their old one to make this easier. It may also be best to give children a timeline for unpacking, letting them know when and how you plan to do it. Particularly stimulating events, such as setting up the kitchen may best be done while children are at school.

No matter the step, a gradual and systematic approach can be essential. Keep the avenues of communication open, give you and your child time to process and consult a professional if necessary.

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