I recently heard from a parent who was in the process of moving to a new city. She was very concerned about helping her son, Andre, who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), adjust to all of the upcoming changes a move entails, including a new house and a new school. I assured her that there are a number of strategies that she could use to help prepare Andre for the upcoming changes and adjust to his new home. These are the suggestions I shared with her:
Let the individual with ASD know about the change in advance.
In general, people with ASD do best if they know about a change ahead of time. How far in advance that knowledge is helpful varies tremendously from person to person. If you’re moving to a new house and you are going to have to start packing, it’s probably the right time to introduce the change.
Create a social narrative about the change.
You can create a video or written social narrative. This should be written at the appropriate level for the individual. For younger children or older individuals with ASD who need more significant support, the narrative may include few words and lots of pictures. For others, the narrative may read more like a newspaper article. For written narratives, use photographs whenever possible. You may find it helpful to create narratives about several different changes that will be occurring. So, you might write one about your new house, their new bedroom, the new city, the new school, and their new classroom. You can also write about “people changes,” such as having a new teacher or meeting new neighbors. If you’re moving closer to Grandma and Grandpa, you’ll want to explain that they will get to see their grandparents more often.
Include information about what will stay the same.
Sometimes, we erroneously assume that people with ASD will “know” this. So, for example, if the entire family (e.g. mom, dad, baby sister, and child with ASD) is moving to the new house, include this in the social narrative.
When possible, include the individual with ASD in preparation for the change.
This might be having the individual pack up their own belongings and making the boxes. Or, perhaps they can help prepare the social narrative by taking pictures of the new house or new school or writing part of the narrative. Keep in mind that the narrative can be a “work in progress” that is filled in as you gather the information.
Use a calendar to provide information about the timeline.
Mark your calendars for last day of school, moving day, and other important information such as when Dad will be out of town getting settled in the new job before the rest of the family arrives. Mark the calendar using whatever will help the individual with ASD understand the information that you are trying to communicate, including photographs and pictures.
Changes are inevitable. We all face them at various points of our lives. Although changes can be particularly challenging for individuals with ASD, preparing them for the change can help reduce their anxiety and adjust to the new circumstances.
Diane Adreon, Ed.D., is associate director of the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism & Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD). UM-NSU CARD is a state-funded, non-residential resource center that provides free services to over 11,000 individuals and their families in South Florida. CARD services include individualized guidance and support to families throughout the lifespan; technical assistance and training for professionals, schools, agencies, and employers; and public awareness. Dr. Adreon’s newest publication (with Brenda Smith Myles, Ph.D., a member of OAR’s Scientific Council), Special Considerations for Students with High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Guide for School Administrators, will be available soon.