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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Kaminski, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA(VA)

Smooth Move! Tips for Moving with Your Child with Autism

We are heading into “PCS season” and we have quite a few families leaving the NoVa area. Even if your family isn’t on the move this spring/summer, there is a good chance that your turn is not too far off on the horizon. While this won’t be the “first time at the rodeo” for most of our families, moving takes on special challenges when there is a family member with autism. We’ve compiled some tips and strategies for preparing for and executing the move, as well as settling into your new home.

Preparing/Before the Move

Of course, moving in-and-of-itself requires a lot of planning and you may feel like you don’t have the bandwidth for even more pre-moving tasks. But as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Talk to your child about the change

For some children, changes in their environment and routines are especially hard. Talking about the upcoming changes early and frequently, can help them understand the need for the move and feel more prepared. Be sure to let them know that things that are important to them, such as their belongings and family, will be moving with them. For the child who craves predictability, share when you will begin the moving process, how long it will take, how and when you will pack, what will happen on moving day, and what will happen after you get to your new home.

Don’t forget to prepare your child for other changes related to moving, such as a new school, new friends, and different kinds of weather. Stay positive as you talk about all of the upcoming changes.

One way to talk about the change, especially for the younger child or one more highly impacted by autism, is through a social story. A social story can help make the abstract concept of “moving” more concrete by adding information and visuals about the different aspects of the move. You can create your own social story or ask your BCBA to help create one. Either way, try to use actual photos of the new home (including their new bedroom), schools, neighborhood, and so on. And don’t forget to focus on how awesome the new space will be!

Use visual aids

One advantage to a custom-created social story is that it includes helpful visuals, including pictures of the new home and surroundings. There are other visuals aids that you can also use such as:

A countdown calendar: this is a great way to help them track when the change is going to happen. It’s also a great way to provide a new “routine” related to the move.

A “visual timeline”: The countdown calendar focuses on one thing, the number of days until moving. A “visual timeline” on the other hand is essentially a checklist of the activities and events that will occur during the moving process.

A visual schedule: And, to go to an even finer-grained level, use visual schedules to add predictability to different components of the move. A visual schedule that lays out the events/activities for the day, in sequence, can make an overwhelming activity feel less chaotic to the child.

Pack Smartly

Our military families are, for the most part, expert packers! Still here are some things that you can do in the packing process that can help make the move easier for your child.

Let them help! Because routines and predictability are important for many children with autism, knowing where to find their belongings can reduce unpredictability. Although many military families have packing assistance, involving your child in packing many of their belongings themselves can ease some of their anxiety. Let them help as little or as much as they feel comfortable. Involve them labeling the boxes. Make the boxes even easier for them to find by decorating them together. In fact, decorated boxes also give you an easy way to remind them where things are and helps them find their boxes after the move. That “Paw Patrol” themed box is much easier to find than a plain box in that sea of brown cardboard!

Pack Them Last & Pack a “Comfort Kit” Consider packing their belongings last, so that they have access to them for as long as possible (and, on the flip side, unpacking their things first in the new home). Many families also find it useful to pack “Comfort Kit” with some of the child’s favorite items that they keep with them during the move. This can be particularly useful if your boxes are going to be shipped out ahead of you or you are leaving your current home before your boxes do, both of which are often experienced by military families.

Plan for Triggers and Reactions*

You should be cognizant of potential triggers and have a plan for dealing with them when they occur. Here are a few examples of challenges your child may face upon moving:

· Overstimulation – If your child appears overstimulated, have them take a break and step away from the item or the situation, or have a caregiver take your child elsewhere.

· Sensory seeking – If your child is sensory seeking, let them lift or push something heavy and use their muscles.

· Anxiety – If your child seems to be struggling with anxiety, look for ways to reassure them. Make use of the comfort kit you have put together that contains familiar items. You may also want to play a favorite movie or music.

· Sadness – Try to make the moving process fun for your child and focus on positives. However, it is also important to help your child to identify this feeling of sadness and explain that it is okay to feel sad about moving.

Make Plans for your Transitioning Services

Talk with your child’s current school about transitioning planning for the IEP. Ask your current service providers if they have suggestions for providers in your new area. Call potential new providers and get on waitlists or begin the conversations about intake. Don’t wait until after the move. While not every area has the same high level of demand for services as Northern Virginia, many military families do experience a wait for services in other locations.

Welcome Home

Preparation is only half the battle. After the move there will be a period of transition. Give your child time to adjust. Even though there may be sooooo much to do to get settled, this may be a time when you want to place fewer demands on your child (for example, fewer chores); your child may be having a hard time adjusting and coping with the newness of it all.

Make the New More Familiar

Let them unpack. On the other hand, one “chore” that might help with the transition is unpacking their own boxes. If your child is able and comfortable doing so, include them in the unpacking process. If you labeled or decorated the boxes together, they will be easy to find. If you set up the furniture in their “spaces” (for example, bedroom, playroom) first, then the process of unpacking and setting up their space can start quickly. Having their things accessible to them can be comforting and make the new more familiar.

Get into a routine as soon as possible. Try to make their new routines as similar as possible to their old routines. The bathroom itself may be different, but there’s no reason to change where bathing or brushing teeth falls in the bedtime routine.

Do familiar things. Cook a favorite meal. Watch a favorite move. Play a familiar game. Recreate familiar “sensations,” such as familiar sounds and smells (for example, a bedtime sound machine or night light).

Don’t forget that even small “unfamiliar” things can cause stress and frustration. After my last move, the door handle on the refrigerator was on the opposite side from what I was used to. It took me forever to stop pulling on the wrong side of the door, before I finally got into the habit of pulling on the correct side. Such seemingly small things can cause frustration. And when there are a bunch of them, that frustration can build up!

Plan for Safety

Don’t wait to start analyzing the home and surroundings for potential safety hazards. If possible, before the move have installed, or make plans for installation of any additional locks or safety features. Check for other potential hazards (for example, bodies of water) near your home and begin talking with and teaching your child safety measures regarding them as soon as possible.

Find Your New Community

Through a community, you can gain support for your child as well as yourself. So look for opportunities to find and build one as soon as possible. Meet the neighbors. Consider joining local/regional groups such as the local Autism Society chapter. Wander down to the closest playground. As you explore the possibilities, you may find new experiences for your child, as well as for yourself!


Be prepared. Be patient. And give yourself and your child some grace. Oh, and let your ABA team help. We can provide help & guidance with developing social stories, visual schedules, etc., work on practicing flexible responding, identify & practice calming strategies for overwhelming times, and more.

References and Resources

For more resources, visit the sites below.

*Reprinted from

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