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September 2012: Moving with your Special Needs Child: 15 ways to ease the transition

By Krystyann Krywko, Ed.D.

It is estimated that one out of five families move every year. While transitioning to a new neighborhood or town can bring an assortment of stresses, this stress can be amplified when a family moves with a special needs child. Routines, therapies and support networks can be disrupted, and the entire family can feel on edge. Whether this is your first move or you are a seasoned veteran, the following tips will steer you and your family on the path to a smoother transition.

Before the move:

Fill them in: Children can easily sense tension, so it’s important they remain connected with the significant changes that accompany a move. Lori Collins Burgan, author of “Moving with Kids: 25 Ways to Ease Your Family’s Transition to a New Home,” emphasizes how important it is to tell your child once the move is definite. “Children trust their parents to tell them important information that affects their lives; this trust can be damaged if your child finds out you are planning a move before you tell them.”

Keep them involved: As a parent you know what your child can handle emotionally. While taking a child house hunting might work in some families, for others it makes sense to wait. “Our children are visual learners, “says Sharla Jordan, mother of six boys (four with special needs), “so once we had a contract to buy our new home, I drew out a sketch of the floor plan and explained where their bedrooms would be and where their toys would go. This really helped reduce anxiety.”

Get up to date: Paperwork is easily overlooked during a move, so now is a good time to begin collecting your child’s medical and school records. This can include information such as current doctors and therapists, medications, IEPs, explanation of diagnosis and therapies your child currently receives.

Ask for referrals: Ask your child’s current doctors and therapists if they are aware of anyone who practices in your new location, or what professional organization you can turn to in order to find a qualified therapist.

Reach out to potential schools: Once you have a rough idea of what neighborhood you will be moving to, contact local schools and tell them about your child. Ask about what services the school is familiar with and also check to see if there are some local special needs families with whom you can connect.

During the move:

Be prepared: Even before moving day arrived, Ms. Jordan knew one of her sons would have a difficult time. “We arranged for a friend and neighbor to watch him, and the youngest two. We told him he was going to be the babysitter’s helper, so he felt like he was involved with the move.”

Recognize feelings of loss: Help your child recognize the many emotions they might have on moving day. While she might be excited to move to a bigger house so she can have her own bedroom, she might also be sad she will be so far away from her best friend.

Give you child choices: These don’t have to be big choices, and can be as simple as giving your child a backpack and having him fill it with toys or books that he wants to have near him for the car or airplane ride to your new residence.

Make sure her room is set up first: Seeing their familiar possessions in a new space will help your child feel less anxious about all the changes. Set aside her possessions and furniture and try to have them put in the moving truck last, that way they will be the first to be taken into the new house.

Take care of yourself: Make sure you don’t forget to look after yourself on moving day. Eat nutritious foods and drink plenty of water. Practice healthy coping skills and recognize your own emotions as you adjust to the changes. Model these behaviors first and then pass them onto your child.

After the move

Find some support: Moves are stressful on everyone and it’s important you take time to find support for yourself as well. “Organizations, such as The Arc (www.thearc.org) and Best Buddies (www.bestbuddies.org) were a great help to my family when we moved”, says Troy McClain, brother and guardian of a younger sister, who is developmentally delayed and profoundly deaf. “They understood both the needs of our family and the transitional bumps that occurred in my sister’s behavior and attitude during the move.”

Connect with other families: Reach out to families that have a child with a similar diagnosis, or families who live close by and have children that are a similar age. Having a friend to play with or to start school with can be a big help.

Visit the school: “My son expresses his anxiety through inappropriate physical interactions with his friends,” says Eileen Wolter, mother of an autistic child, “so taking him to visit the school several times before the start of the year really helped. He visited his classroom and met his teacher ahead of time so that first day wouldn’t be so nerve-wracking for him.”

Go on tour: of the house, of the town, of the parks, all the places that you need to visit to help your child adjust to their new surroundings.

Scheduling Changes: Schedules are important to many special needs children and can become easily derailed after a move; look for similar activities in your new location. “When we were making our move,” says Mr. McClain, “we knew that bowling on Monday was an important part of DoraLynn’s schedule, so we looked for a place where we could sign her up to bowl on Monday in our new town, which helped with the structure she needs.”

Make a personal moving story! Social stories are often used to help children on the autism spectrum prepare for new experiences, but Deborah Michael, a pediatric occupational therapist and founder of North Shore Pediatric Therapy in Chicago, says they are a great tool to help any child deal with anxiety. Follow the guidelines below to help your child better understand the moving process.

  • Draw/take pictures/use magazine cut-outs of what will happen prior to the move (packing boxes, etc); what will happen the day of the move (movers will come; drive/saying good-bye to friends/fly to new house; furniture/boxes will arrive later); what the new house/town will look like. You might want to make three separate booklets.
  • Provide a separate page for each step of the move. Write a few sentences below each picture that will help explain the story to your child.
  • Keep the story positive; focus on your child’s strengths.
  • While it’s okay to point out potential problems that might arise during the move, it’s also important to provide solutions. For example, “It will be sad to say good-bye to your friends, but you will meet new friends at your school.”
  • Introduce the booklet to your child as a bedtime story and keep it on their bookshelf, so it becomes part of their regular routine.
  • The earlier you can introduce the story before the move the better. Ms. Richardson, of Thriving with Autism, suggests introducing these stories at least 2-4 weeks in advance so the move will become a normal part of your child’s thinking.

Krystyann is a writer and education researcher who specializes in hearing loss and the impact it has on children and families. She writes from a parental, as well as a personal, perspective. She and her young son and were diagnosed with hearing loss one year apart.


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