In a parallel universe…
An autism friendly holiday isn’t on my radar. Instead, I’ve just come home from a holiday in the sun, where I drank ice cold beer and dined on garlic prawns by the seafront.
I took long, lazy naps every afternoon, after a morning sunbathing by the pool, and sipped cocktails on the balcony in the evening.
I read books and bartered with the locals in backstreet markets.
Actually, I did none of this.
I’ve just got home from a week in Wales. The beach was wet and windy, we ate fish and chips and I listened to my instincts that were telling me bartering with the checkout man in Tesco was not socially acceptable…
Our 2017 break was our fifth trip to Wales in 5 years.
And we loved it.
Before our children were born, I hadn’t envisaged going to Wales every year. I always thought I would take country breaks in the UK – when I was 70.
But our family holidays – I imagined we would go overseas – probably the Canary or Balearic islands, where I holidayed as a child.
Our altered reality
But life has a habit of getting in the way of plans, and when it became apparent that our younger son’s difficulties were more than a delay (or, as one lovely person put it, just required a clip round the ear) holiday destinations were the last thing on our mind.
By the time he was diagnosed at the age of 5, we had already been on several problematic UK breaks. There was that time he bounced off the walls in a Travel Lodge room until midnight (at which point my husband took him for a drive in the pouring rain to calm him down).
That first day at a caravan park when he freaked out at the sight of caravans and attempted to run away from us as we unpacked the car.
And the time we had stupidly shown him photographs of the pool and waterslide, only to find out he wasn’t allowed to go down it. I can hardly bear to think of the meltdown that followed and the crushing realisation that we had done completely the wrong thing. Epic fail.
But you see, autism creeps up on you. In the beginning, as the problems begin to surface, you suspect your child may have autism but you don’t really know what this means. And you certainly don’t know how to prepare your child for different situations, especially holidays. You have to learn this stuff (which we eventually did at a 10 week NAS course).
That year we got it all wrong (2012)
The heartbreaking pool incident happened during our first trip to Wales in 2012. We hadn’t prepared him properly and he was so anxious that we ended up stuck in a rigid routine of doing exactly the same things every day, and even then the slightest deviation from his self-imposed schedule resulted in tears and meltdowns.
His anxiety levels steadily rose throughout the week, but one good thing came out of it.
We discovered Welsh beaches. Vast, open beaches. No pier, no ice-cream vans, no novelty shops or noisy beachside bars. Just sand, sea and the occasional dog walker.
In short, no distractions.
Perfect for an autistic child.
Yes, it was wet. Yes, it was windy. And then some.
But as our son ran along that beach, the loud noises and echolalia that had attracted so many stares in our everyday life at home in Milton Keynes were like whispers against the crashing waves and howling wind.
He could be as noisy as he liked.
There was hardly anybody around and those that were couldn’t hear him anyway.
The point is he should be able to make any noise he damn well likes anyway. And we shouldn’t give a toss about people’s reactions.
But fellow autism parents will understand how liberating this was for us.
I knew that we had finally got one thing right. We needed to get our shit together and learn how to prepare him for future holidays, but Wales was the right destination for us.
THE HEALING YEAR (2013)
The following year, 2013, I booked a week in a country cottage in the area of Dunvant, near the Gower peninsular.
Everything had changed in that year. Our son had been formally diagnosed with autism, learning difficulties and dyspraxia. We’d secured a Statement of Educational needs and he was due to start at a special school for autistic children in the coming September. And during this whole foggy period, my dad had died from a 5 year battle with dementia.
I felt like I’d been run over by a train. I wanted to disappear, far away from home and see nobody, apart from my little family.
So I found a property in Dunvant, outside Swansea and close to the Gower Peninsula. It couldn’t have been more different to the busy caravan park where my son had struggled so much.
It was a huge 4 bedroom cottage nestled in several acres of land, with a massive garden and a trampoline for the kids. Far too big for a small family of 4 but I didn’t care. My son needed this. And so did I.
As soon as we arrived in Dunvant, both our sons settled in straight away. They were 6 and 9, so totally unimpressed by the size and status of the place (unlike us, we ran round shrieking, “Oh my god!”)
But there was something about this older, very solid and tranquil property that seemed to make our younger son feel secure. I think it’s a sensory thing – he seems more at peace on older properties (maybe they absorb sound better?). Whatever the reason, he relaxed and so did we.
And the icing on the cake? The arrival of the Tesco delivery van, bringing all his familiar foods and treats.
In that huge garden, I could sip my coffee and watch him having fun without experiencing that familiar feeling that creeps over me when a stranger’s heard turns to look at my son. I didn’t have to explain the thing that I shouldn’t have to expain: He’s autistic.
And once again, the unspoilt beauty of the Welsh beaches and their calming effect on him confirmed that Wales was rapidly becoming our place.
We had a lovely, relaxing time, enjoying the scenery as we drove to Oxwich Bay, listening to the Stereophonics (he now insists that we listen to Stereophonics on Wales trips, but only Wales trips).
Around this time Rhossili Beach was receiving a lot of attention as it had received a best beach award (in fact, a quick Google search shows that it’s constantly receiving awards).
Our secret was out! The Gower was officially the best place in the Universe and suddenly everyone was going there.
Getting closer (2014/2016)
So the next couple of years we stayed in a converted barn in the less famous village of Brook, in Camarthenshire.
We were just a short drive from Pendine sands, a gorgeous 7 miles stretch of sandy beach. Another winner.
We encountered some difficulties on the first trip, but tried again a year or so later with better results. You can read about this in a blog I wrote for the charity Ambitious About Autism last year.
Here’s a link to that article: Sun, sea, cows and autism
GETTING IT RIGHT (2017)
Having had two successful visits to the barn in Brook, we had a dilemma. Did we play it safe and go there again or try somewhere different?
Professionals and various public figures will always stress how important it is to push your child with autism out of their comfort zone (easy for them to say!)
As a parent – and someone who recognises that nobody actually really knows what this thing called autism is – I agree, up to a point. And yet … routine, stability, reassurance – these are what our son needs. And when he doesn’t get them, we all suffer.
As parents, we need to encourage him, yes. But we also need to be well enough, mentally and physically to care for him. So sometimes the easier option is the happier option.
It was very tempting to take a third trip to the barn in Brook. It was a lovely property and we all felt happy there. A low risk option if you like. But I knew it was unwise to let him get too used to the same property. He needs to experience change, however small, to prepare him for the fact that nothing stays the same forever.
So, we booked a new cottage and prepared him carefully for the holiday (something that we’ve got better at over the years).
He wasn’t happy at the thought initially:
“I want to go to the old cottage. The new cottage is garbage!” he cried.
We were able to overcome his resistance with a few promises:
- We would still cross the Severn Bridge
- We would book tickets for The Blue Lagoon, a waterpark in Bluestone he’s been to several times now
- Tesco would deliver his favourite foods to our door
- He could still get his favourite Happy Meal from McDonalds
- We would take him to the seaside
- The cottage had Wifi (risky this one, as you’re never sure until you get there but it’s a major bargaining tool)
I prepared a number of visual schedules and pictures to help prepare him for the trip ahead (which took 6 hours on the day).
This year’s cottage, situated in Tiers Cross (a rural area near Haverfordwest), was similar to the one we visited in Dunvant back in 2014. Huge. And not another human being in sight!
The property and grounds were smaller, but it was still a spacious, 4 bedroom cottage in a quiet location. There were no neighbours – just a few cows in the next field and a family of Pipistrelle bats!
He loved it. Especially the roll-top bath with built-in Jacuzzi:
“It’s making a FART noise” he said blissfully.
He felt safe there. And so did we.
Safe from anxiety, prying eyes and the judgement of other holidaymakers who live in blissful ignorance of the difficult situations families like ours are faced with every day.
It’s fair to say our holidays to Wales are unusual. We have to micro-manage them.
And while other tourists may be researching the local history, restaurants and scenery, our priorities are more basic: McDonald’s, Tescos and accessible seaside, meaning not too many distractions, parking and a loo.
We spend a lot more time in our cottage than the average traveller, so luxury and peace/tranquillity are important to us. Our son’s needs come first, but it’s our holiday too. We work hard and we want to relax, just like any other family.
Our days out have to be planned, timed and spaced out (our son was bouncing off the walls, shouting and displaying high anxiety symptoms for several hours after our successful Blue Lagoon visit).
In the past we’ve made the mistake of not giving him the time and space to process exciting experiences, resulting in meltdowns which are horrid for him and us.
I may have been freezing while holding the bags on Newgale sands this year, but the sight of my two boys having a blast in the sea made it worthwhile.
And nobody in the ice-cream van queue seemed to mind a little boy wearing his mum’s towelling robe introducing himself to each and every one of them.
Once again, we’d managed a successful trip and, although it was touch and go at times, happy memories were made. That’s what counts.
With thanks to Pixabay for Welsh flag and Gower coastline images.