Moving with a child who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) comes with unique challenges. Children with ASD have sensitivities and needs that necessitate thoughtful preparation and consideration at every stage of the moving process—including hiring a well-vetted professional moving company to maximize efficiency while minimizing disruption.
To help you navigate the journey, we’ve consulted three experts in the fields of child development and ASD. These experts offer insight into how to approach moving when your child has ASD to ensure the process is as smooth as possible:
- Michael Alessandri, Ph.D., professor at the University of Miami, executive director of the UM Center for Autism & Related Disabilities, and assistant chairman of Community Outreach and Engagement for the Department of Psychology
- Jason Wolff, Ph.D., William Harris Professor in Child Development, associate professor, and director of graduate studies in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota
- Jennifer Jones, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at Oklahoma State University and director of the Center for Developmental Disabilities
Preparing for the Move
Careful planning can make the change more manageable when moving with a child or children with ASD. You may benefit from professional parenting guidance to ensure your child’s physical, mental, and emotional comfort. “Because core characteristics of autism include insistence on sameness and resistance to change, moving to a new environment—home or school, for example—can create anxiety and distress and exacerbate the challenging behaviors that often co-occur with autism,” says Alessandri.
One way to prepare is to create a detailed moving plan along with a comprehensive checklist to stay organized and ensure nothing is overlooked. This plan should include a timeline as well as a breakdown of responsibilities that are clearly communicated to the child.
“The key is preparation,” says Alessandri, “and if the preparation is done sufficiently in advance and with the use of strategies that are consistent with the learning strengths of the individual with autism, then the transition should be much easier.”
When working through logistics, map beyond standard moving tasks, such as setting up utilities, forwarding mail, and finding packing supplies, and keep in mind the importance of maintaining your child’s routines to reduce disruption. The key to minimizing stress is outlining the process thoroughly while staying attuned to your child’s requirements and incorporating their regular care.
Here are some ways to help your child prepare for the move.
Tell Your Child About the Move
As soon as you’ve decided to move, prioritize giving your child the news. When broaching the topic, focus on addressing their anxieties about change and offer as much detail as possible so that the upcoming activities feel more predictable.
- Explain the reason first: Whether the move is catalyzed by a new job, the desire to be closer to family, or a change of scenery, aim to convey clearly why the move is necessary. This will help your child better understand why you’re making such a big change.
- Highlight the positives: Emphasize the positives that will accompany a move, including the prospect of exploring a new place, the possibility of making new friends, and the opportunity for exciting and novel experiences. Wolff suggests focusing on the features you know your child will love about their new home based on their interests. For example, highlight that it’s closer to the water, that there is more sunshine, that the new home has a pool, or whatever will excite them the most.
- Encourage maintaining connections: Discuss with your child how they can stay connected to their friends, their old home, and the places they know and love. Explain that moving doesn’t mean you have to lose those connections, they just won’t be as accessible. Assure them that you’ll be there to help them navigate those changes. Alessandri suggests creating a picture book of memories from your old home so that your child can reflect on their past environment.
- Provide visual aids: To better prepare your child, Alessandri suggests using visual aids, such as a map of the new city (particularly in orientation to where your current home is located), photographs of the new house, including the front of the house, the backyard, and their room, and pictures or videos of the neighborhood to help them develop familiarity with an unknown place. You may also want to print out pictures for your child to engage with so that they can acclimate to the idea of the new space independently. These visual elements can foster predictability, helping alleviate their anxiety about the transition.
- Help them use their coping mechanisms: Moving is difficult for any child, as it impacts routines and surroundings. For children with ASD, this interruption can be deeply uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing. Before bringing up the topic of moving, make sure you have the right coping tools on hand and that you’re ready to help them navigate the emotions the news will bring up.
- Limit environmental changes: Moving a long distance can be particularly challenging for children with ASD. “Resistance to change and ‘intolerance of uncertainty’ are very common features in autism,” says Wolff. One way to make them more comfortable is to limit their exposure to change by keeping certain places in your home safe spaces for as long as possible. This means leaving your child’s room intact while you pack the rest of the house, packing their things gradually rather than all at once, and setting up their room at the new house first.
Assess Your Child’s Needs
Moving with a child who has ASD requires parents to assess their child’s individual needs and support them accordingly. Because every child with ASD is different, you, as the parent, will be able to best determine how to help your child through the transition. Autism is a wide spectrum, notes Alessandri, and children have varying need levels ranging from requiring constant support and supervision to being able to function independently with little support.
Regardless of where your child falls on the spectrum, it’s common for their anxiety to increase as the move approaches. “It is to be expected and understandable that moving to a new environment will mean changes in routines that will cause some distress and will likely result in temporary changes to children’s sleep, eating habits, or behavior,” says Jones.
You should anticipate these changes and plan to accommodate your child before you move into the new home. Here are some tips from Wolff, Jones, and Alessandri:
- Always provide advance notice before each step of the move in whatever communication style is most effective for your child.
- Have them help pack, if possible, so they know their favorite items will be joining them in the new home.
- If possible, visit the new home and neighborhood several times before moving. Based on your child’s needs, expose them as gradually as necessary. If you can’t visit, take videos, and allow the child to view them as many times as they need.
- Reassure your child that they are a valuable member of the family by asking them about what excites them most about moving and what they’re most nervous about. Be sure to talk through those anticipations and concerns.
- Allow them to say goodbye to their old home however they need. This could mean taking or drawing pictures of the old home or spending more time in their favorite areas.
Establish Care in Your New Neighborhood
Two components that are crucial to your child’s adjustment to a new place and continuity of care include identifying the right doctor and finding the right school for your child. Hiring a professional moving company to handle the physical aspect of your move can grant you more time and mental bandwidth to focus on these two key areas.
To secure quality health care for your child, start by asking your current doctor if they can suggest other practice locations or refer you to a trusted, quality clinic. You can also leverage your online networks, parenting groups, and neighborhood listservs for additional aid in locating a caring practice.
Once you’ve located several potential doctors, have your child’s records ready and sent ahead of time. This ensures that providers have enough familiarity with your child’s needs to determine if they are the best fit for their care. Next, schedule consultations with multiple practices to get a comprehensive view of the options available in your new area before making your selection.
On the educational front, thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, public schools are mandated to provide free public education to individuals with disabilities, including those with ASD. However, the specific programs and services can vary greatly from one school to another.
When considering schools, investigate what infrastructure exists at the school to support your child’s needs, if they are able to provide appropriate transportation for your child, and if they have appropriate staffing to meet your child’s needs. In addition to public schools, there are private institutions to consider.
Find the Perfect Home
The house you choose for your next home should serve as a safe haven for your family and child with ASD. There are several aspects to explore when choosing a home that will support long-term contentment.
When evaluating a property, assess room sizes, safety features, home organization, and bathroom orientations. Ask yourself if the layout and location are conducive to your child’s and family’s needs. For example, is the home easy to move through without difficulty or obstruction? Are there any accessibility challenges? What is the proximity to important services, such as schools, therapy centers, or doctor’s offices? Is there an outdoor space?
Further, assess whether you can make modifications to accommodate your child with ASD. This may include having an extra room or sensory-friendly space where your child can engage in their favorite activities or simply be alone when they’re overstimulated. By carefully seeking out the ideal home, you can enable a smoother transition for your family and your child.
Organizing the Move
Staying organized during a move can help reduce stress and anxiety for everyone involved, especially for your child with ASD. Creating a detailed roadmap, hiring movers, and packing efficiently can all streamline the process.
Create a Moving Checklist and Plan
Make a master moving task list that includes all of your to-dos, including updating your address with various entities, such as credit card companies, your employer, and utility providers, researching voting requirements, determining the steps to get a new driver’s license, revising your car insurance, and performing other administrative tasks. Keeping a detailed list can help you feel a sense of control and provide the satisfaction of checking things off as they’re done.
Prior to departing your current city, make final appointments with doctors and request copies of your family’s medical records. Also, ask your child’s current providers to write briefs on their experience caring for your child to pass along to new professional caregivers. Lastly, get extra prescriptions to avoid any interruption to your child’s medication regimen.
Remember that many children with ASD are highly sensitive and can sense tension and anxiety. Staying organized and controlling your stress will make the move less emotionally disruptive for your child.
Hire Experienced Movers
Hiring professional movers is a great way to simplify the moving process. Movers are trained to pack fragile items, disassemble furniture, transport your items, and unpack your possessions in your new home. This not only saves you time but also can reduce the mental burden of moving, allowing you to focus on your child’s emotional needs instead of worrying about logistics.
As moving day draws near, it’s essential to keep the process engaging for your child. Instead of making packing a daunting task, try to transform it into an adventure by keeping it light or making it a game. Keeping children involved in the packing process can help them feel like active participants in the move and ensure all their belongings are safe and sound.
To pack efficiently, label boxes with critical items “unpack first” and have them with you during transport so that you can reach them in an emergency. Additionally, necessary supplies and medicine should be kept on hand in easily accessible locations for convenience.
Settling In Post-Move
Once you get to your new home, it may seem like the hard part is over, but that’s when the real work begins. From unpacking and setting up the house to helping your child adjust to a new environment, here are some ways to make the transition easier.
Adapt to the New Home
After the move, it will take time for your child to adapt fully to the new home. “Remember that it is understandable and likely that the transition period will be difficult. However, it will pass, and routines will be reestablished with time and intention,” says Jones. “Plan ahead for the bumps in the journey, and save some energy for the extra patience that may be needed as children grieve the loss of the old and settle into the new.”
To create a supportive environment, maintain familiar routines and ensure that your child’s personal space is as comfortable, familiar, and organized as possible. Identify and minimize sensory triggers. Patience, consistency, and understanding are critical in moving through the adaptation period.
Adjust to the Area
Acclimating to a new neighborhood, city, or state will take additional time. “Gradual exposure can be very effective for those who are particularly sensitive to change,” says Wolff. To help build your child’s familiarity with a new area, start small by walking them around the block or driving around the city, then gradually work toward visiting local businesses or going on excursions. This will help them become familiar with the surrounding environment.
“Aim to make the new experience a success,” advises Wolff. “Provide positive reinforcement for something like entering a new building or identifying aspects of the new space they are likely to enjoy while also not pushing them beyond what they are ready for.”
Notice patterns of potentially disruptive external stimuli, such as nearby trains, busy interstates, and construction zones, and create strategies to navigate them. As you explore, emphasize any features of the new town that correspond with the previous residency, as familiarity can bring comfort.
Set Up Your Child’s Room
Once you arrive at your new destination, setting up your child’s room is the first thing you should do. You’ll want to intentionally create a safe, welcoming, and comfortable space that echoes their last bedroom—whether that’s a similar furniture layout, familiar bedding, or the same decorative theme or color palette. “Consider creating interest and excitement in the new place by involving children in decor choices for their personal spaces,” says Jones.
Be patient and kind as your child adjusts, observe their progress, and report any behavioral changes to their doctor if you are concerned. Getting into a new routine as soon as possible can help create a solid foundation for healthy adjustment.
Organizations That Assist Children with Autism
The following organizations offer a wealth of resources, support, and advocacy for individuals with ASD and families with children who have ASD. You can visit their websites for more information on the services they provide.
- Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN): ASAN is a nonprofit organization run by and for individuals on the autism spectrum. It focuses on advocacy, support, and promotion for the acceptance and understanding of autism.
- Autism Speaks: Autism Speaks is one of the largest autism advocacy organizations in the country. It focuses on promoting research, raising awareness, and providing resources for individuals with autism and their families.
- Easterseals: This organization provides a wide range of services to people with disabilities, including autism. They offer therapy, education, job training, and support services to improve the quality of life for individuals and their families.
- National Autism Association (NAA): NAA offers support and resources for individuals and families affected by autism. It focuses on safety issues, education, and advocacy for improved policies and programs.
- The Autism Society: This organization is dedicated to improving the lives of individuals affected by autism. It provides information, support, and advocacy services to empower individuals and families.
Moving with a child who has ASD requires careful planning, thoughtful communication, and consideration of your child’s unique needs. By creating a detailed checklist, communicating the plan, and maintaining your child’s routines as much as possible, the transition can be smoother and less stressful for all parties involved.
Other vital steps to take when relocating include assessing your child’s health care and educational needs, finding the right professionals to help navigate the move, and selecting a home that accommodates your child.
Throughout the process, patience, consistency, and understanding should underpin all actions surrounding the move. By taking these steps, you can provide the most positive and comforting experience for your child and family during the moving journey.
Michael Alessandri, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Miami, where he also serves as the executive director of the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD). With a career that began in 1996, he has extensive experience working with individuals with autism and their families. Alessandri, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Rochester, obtained his M.S. and Ph.D. in psychology from Rutgers University. In addition to his other roles, he serves as the Department of Psychology’s assistant chairman for Community Outreach and Engagement at the University of Miami.
Jason Wolff, Ph.D., is the William Harris Professor in child development at the University of Minnesota. He holds positions in the Department of Educational Psychology and the Special Education Program. Wolff’s research focuses on the intersection of brain, behavior, and intervention in children with autism, with a particular emphasis on sensory features and restricted and repetitive behaviors.
Jennifer Jones, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at Oklahoma State University and director of the Center for Developmental Disabilities. She earned her Ph.D. in 2009 and subsequently joined her alma mater and home department as a tenure-track faculty member in 2013. In 2016, Jones was recognized as a fellow for the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (FAAIDD).