Tips for Moving With Special Needs Kids
How to get a jump on things from schools to friends
If you’re reading an article about moving with special needs children, I bet you’ve already thought of finding a doctor, replacing your current services and therapies, and choosing a new school. Of course if the process was as straightforward as replacing old with new, relocating wouldn’t be considered a major life stressor for people with or without special needs.
Moving from New York City to Texas to with four children was nothing short of arranging an expedition to the moon, and planning the transition to Space City started about as early as a real NASA mission. What added even more to the challenge was relocating with my special needs son James, who would start eighth grade away from his fantastic special education classroom in Brooklyn, and my allergic-to-everything toddler, who basically needed an epi pen to even glance at a slice of pizza. And did I mention that I was pregnant?
Was finding a new school and doctor at the top of my list? You bet. But for me it’s not always the big things that make moving hard. For example, one of my top priorities on every moving day (and there have been five in the last eight years) has been to get James’s room unpacked before anything else. My husband thinks I’m completely over the top on this one, but I’m telling you, if James’s room is done, he settles in a lot more quickly than if I have him sleeping on the floor in between cardboard boxes for even one night. Here’s the rest of my relocation survival tips:
1. Find the School
My husband essentially picked out our house. The first time I saw it was the day before closing, and with an acre of backyard and 37 Muscovy ducks more than we had in the city, you can imagine the shock of pulling into the driveway. Many people were stunned that a known control-freak such as myself would let a minor detail like finding a house pass me by, but to me it was all about the school zone.
We actually went down to Houston about four months before moving to choose one of its many sprawling suburbs. Having done a few thousand hours of research prior to the trip had helped me to reduce the search to Southeast Houston and 14 middle schools. For those of you unfamiliar with Texas, driving from Southeast to Northwest Houston takes a couple of hours, so having a more specific area than “Houston” in mind was pretty crucial to the mission.
How did I settle on just 14, you ask? Online reviews, relocation guides, and by calling any school with decent ratings on greatschools.org and asking a list of questions about their special education programming. The schools in Texas were all welcoming to me when I called ahead and asked for a tour, and scheduled me for appointments to meet teachers and see classrooms within two weeks. It’s worth a note here that this was actually very different from my experience at many New York schools, which had specific school tour dates set aside for groups on the academic calendar, so make sure you plan ahead on this one.
My accommodating husband dropped me off at two to three schools each day of our week-long trip and took the kids to a nearby playground while I investigated. Though it sounds contradictory, the key to my success was leaving James in New York on this trip so I could pick the school for him. I didn’t need him there to rule out a school if a kid bumped into him or a balloon popped during the tour, or to hyper-focus on a school that served tacos at lunch, had a cool computer lab, or had the best looking school buses. I came with my list of criteria and asked to see each room that James would be in during the day, from the cafeteria to the gym. By the end of the week the decision had basically been made for me, so I told my husband to pick a house for us as long as it came with the “winning” school zone. And a swimming pool, of course (this is Texas we’re talking about).
2. Hot Weather Means More Swimming!
Even though I was still struggling to wrap my mind around leaving New York, I acted to James and the rest of my children as though we had won the lottery with this move. We started to look on the map at places around Houston we could visit, checked out pictures of our new house online, and read chapters from several guidebooks each night before bed.
What I did not focus on was the fact that: we would be living in hotels for about two weeks of the transition (we get to stay at a hotel with a pool!), that most of our stuff would arrive in Texas about a week after we moved into said hotel (you each get your very own suitcase this time!) or that it was going to be as hot and humid as nacho cheese when we got there (we’ll be able to go swimming every day!). Putting the “exclamation point” on challenging parts was a key to avoiding meltdowns (except for a few by a certain city-loving grownup).
3. Pack More Underwear Than You Think You’ll Need. Same for Prescriptions. And Earplugs.
We made a visit to James’s neurologist shortly before the move, who wrote him prescriptions that would last a few extra months to give us time to find a new doctor once we arrived. I also purchased extra Benadryl for each bag in case we were separated and our toddler came into contact with any dairy (last time it was a muffin crumb off of the airport floor), and earplugs in case James needed them for the flight or during the following week, which just happened to include the Fourth of July. For our week in the hotel I packed each child 11 pairs of underwear. That’s 33 pairs of underwear, people. And let’s not forget the diapers.
4. Got Shots?
We made sure James had a physical and all of his immunizations caught up for the school year while we were still in New York. With his complete phobia of shots, it was easier to take him somewhere familiar to him, with nurses we knew would handle the inevitable meltdown once he realized shots were involved. We also were trying to streamline his school entry process, which started much earlier in Texas and required more documents than getting a passport.
5. Find a Fancy Hotel (or apartment if you’re in NYC)
When we travel we usually rent an apartment on airbnb.com so that we have enough space without blowing a fortune. In Texas however, Airbnb produced few results that fit our needs, so it was time to find a hotel, which still ended up being less for the week than two nights in the Big Apple!
I narrowed it down first by finding hotels that had suites in Southeast Houston—our kids are too young to make a second separate room a viable option. We found that there were just a few hotels that had suites available, and upon further investigation the Holiday Inn was a clear winner on several fronts. The suites had two large rooms with three beds but were reasonably priced. The indoor swimming pool would help break things up regardless of the weather (most of the hotels we looked at had outdoor pools). There was an onsite restaurant where kids ate free that had several dairy-, nut-, and soy-free items on the menu, saving us extra grocery store runs for our 2-year-old, but even better, the suite came with a kitchenette, enabling us to prepare and store special food if necessary.
Once we arrived my children also gleefully discovered that the hotel we had chosen was very fancy, as indicated by free homemade cookies each night and the tables in the hotel restaurant that had their own televisions with cartoons, making the wait for food bearable. I’ll admit to feeling rather gleeful on that one, too.
6. Make Friends, Ahead of Time
I discovered meetup.com in New York and was thrilled to find it existed in Houston as well. Using Meetup I was able to find groups tailored to our interests, special needs and/or specific location long before we moved to Texas. You cannot overestimate the value of talking to people living in the area that you’re moving to about grocery stores, doctors, adaptive sports leagues and pretty much anything else you can think of. By the time we moved to Houston I already had a pool party organized so that we could meet all of our new friends! Moving somewhere without Meetup? Make sure to check out your local Parent to Parent program, Challenger sports leagues, Special Olympics and scout troups as places to connect with other families ahead of time.
7. Find a Babysitter
Or at least set up a few interviews. Moving 1800 miles away from extended family with four children and a baby due in 8 weeks made finding a sitter or two pretty high on the priority list. I found potential candidates on care.com and sittercity.com, which have search filters for caregivers with special needs experience. It took a few interviews once we got here before we found someone who fit just right with our family, but the sitter we ended up hiring has been one of the best things about our move to Texas so far!
I’m happy to report that 6 months later, everyone in my family is thriving in Houston. Did my list cover absolutely everything? Unfortunately not. Did we run out of underwear? Unbelievably, yes. But for those of you who find yourselves facing a similar situation, let me be the first to reassure you that it’s not going to be the end of the world. It’s about preparing for what you can, accepting that there will be surprises, and finding your own “swimming pool in the nacho cheese.”