Helping Your Autistic Child Cope With a Move
Donna Richards and her family moved from one side of town to another. She and her family encountered all the typical problems families have when they move, but unlike most families, Richards had an added hurdle – helping her son with autism adjust to the change.
For children with autism, change – even moving from room to room – can be traumatic. It unsettles their world.
"They can't do anticipatory planning," says Kay Murray of Arlington, Mass., the mother of an adult son with autism. "They can't imagine the 'what if.' It has to be concrete."
Understanding this, Richards, of Galesville, Ala., brought her son Justin to the new house before they moved in and did everything she could to help Justin with the transition.
"We would have been better off if we had moved to a new town," Richard says, explaining that they frequently drive by the former home. "He was OK the first day or two, but then he saw the old house, and he got upset. We finally had to take a different route."
Difficult as it can be for children with autism, change is a part of life and cannot be avoided. Parents have to be prepared for as much as possible, from a new kid in the classroom to a catastrophic event.
The key, says Nancy Wiseman, author of Could It Be Autism? (Broadway, 2006) and mother to an autistic daughter, is knowing your child. Parents and experts alike are quick to stress that every child with autism is unique. There is no "one size fits all" solution.
"Even the little things like the subtle changes in the child's schedule can throw a family out of kilter," Wiseman says. "Knowing what sets off your child allows the family to plan in advance in order to avoid those triggers."
Children with autism do best with visual keys, structure and rehearsing, says Robin Lock, co-director of the Burkhart Center for Autism in the College of Education at Texas Tech University.
"For the child with autism, the rehearsal has to go on and on," Lock says.
Lock's colleague, Carol Layton, advocates the use of Social Stories to help children with autism adjust with change. Social Stories were first defined and refined by Carol Gray. They describe situations or concepts by using relevant cues, perspectives or responses.
"For example, when a family is moving, they can take pictures of the moving van and the new house, and they can provide a map to the new neighborhood," Layton says. "The family members need to explain how the things from the old house will be put into the new house."
If possible, parents should make sure the child with autism is involved with the process causing change. This includes taking the child to see potential homes or visit a new classroom before the actual transition takes place.
School and Travel
The "No Child Left Behind" initiative permits many children with autism to spend more time in mainstream classes – another change that can be overwhelming for the child.
When this happened to Justin Richards, his mom took small steps to help him handle the stressful situation. She introduced him to the cafeteria by having him eat breakfast there, when the room is calmer and less busy than lunch time. This gave Justin the opportunity to get used to the atmosphere.
"We also met with the teacher to find a buddy for Justin," Richards says. "The teacher recommended a well-behaved child in the class, and we invited him and his parents to lunch. We explained that Justin has autism, and we hoped he would be willing to help Justin in the classroom. Now they are the best of friends."
Vacations can also be a stressful time for families with autistic children. Like moving or entering a new classroom, a vacation can be anticipated and reviewed with Social Stories and other visuals. However, traveling lends itself to unplanned events, as well as crowds of people and added stimuli and triggers.
Wiseman reiterates that the most important aspect is knowing your child and what she can and cannot handle. "Is this a child who can't eat out, needs certain things around him or can't tolerate too much stimulation?" Wiseman says. "Can they only go by car or could they handle air travel?"
Also, when planning the vacation, find out what accommodations the destination can provide. For example, if you think your child can handle the stimulation of an amusement park but not waiting in line, contact the park's office to see if special provisions can be made.
While traveling, carry a backpack filled with items that provide comfort and familiarity for the child. Some parents provide photo albums that hold pictures of every aspect of the trip. And don't forget to provide similar information for the return home.
Sometimes situations happen that are difficult to plan or explain in advance, such as the death of a loved one, a fire or a natural disaster.
After Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in August 2005, families with autistic children found themselves being kicked out of shelters because the children's behavior disturbed other hurricane victims. Some families stayed in their homes, believing it would be easier to ride out the storm in a familiar surrounding rather than deal with the chaos at the shelters.
There is help for the families of children with autism who have suffered through a catastrophic event. Rob and Sharon Oberletner, who have a son with autism, created www.AutismCares.org, which has provided connections between families.
"We tried to put families in a safe place," Sharon Oberletner says. "The important thing was to get some routine back into the lives of these children and their families." AutismCares.org provided items like battery-powered DVD players and movies for the children with autism, items that might seem like a luxury to some families but are a lifesaver to the family of an autistic child.
Recognizing that all children are different, there are indications that some children with autism have an easier time coping with change as they get older.
"Experience is the best teacher," Murray says. "Parents have other priorities when the children are young, so they aren't worried about exposing them to change. If they aren't exposed to it, the kids can't learn to deal with it."
The trick is to keep things as comfortable as possible, according to Karen Berkman, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida.
"Think of when you are in a brand-new life experience," Berkman says. "That's what those kids are going through every day of their lives."