Our autism friendly holiday in Wales

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.

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By the beach in Borth, not far from Aberystwyth. Our first trip to Wales – we made so many mistakes but he loved the beach.

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).

autism friendly week in wales

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.

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We all loved the cottage in Brook, but having been there twice we felt that our son needed to experience different environments.

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

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2016 in Brook, near Pendine Sands. His cheeky face says it all. Happy boy.

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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 Blue Lagoon in Pembrokeshire. We had a fantastic time but have learnt the hard way that our son needs time to process days out.

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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.

Alison x

 

With thanks to Pixabay for Welsh flag and Gower coastline images.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When copywriting and caring collide…

If you’re a parent carer running a business, or thinking about it, this is for you…

I’ve read many articles about juggling parenthood with running a business. And I love them. It’s great to share thoughts and ideas.

I can relate to some of the experiences and advice, but my parenting issues are a bit different to most. My son has autism and learning difficulties.

I’m not saying my life as a working parent is harder, but it’s certainly different.

And when I read articles about juggling parenting and self-employment, there’s a tiny voice in my head saying, “What about me?”

Lately I’ve been wondering how many other self-employed peeps there are out there, simultaneously navigating their way through the world of business and special needs parenting.

All our children are different, and our experiences are different but I’m hoping some of the following would be helpful. At the very least, I’d love to hear your own experiences or tips.

  1. Acceptance

This could be a whole blog in itself! What do I mean by acceptance?

Firstly, I mean acceptance about your child’s disability. That means accepting that they won’t change their behaviour or needs to accommodate your business and schedule. You’re going to have to work around them!

Because their care comes first, always; so it’s a case of working out when you can focus on your work and how much time you have available.

For me, this means only working on client stuff when my son is at his special school. He’s extremely well-supported, so I can drop him off at 9am secure in the knowledge that I’m unlikely to hear from them during the day.

He sleeps well at night. This is a huge bonus, because it means I get to sleep too. In the early days, I would take advantage of this time to work on my business (more about this in point 2!) but I’ve come to realise that sleep is super important, and my productivity during those school (client) hours is far greater if I get 7 solid hours of zizz.

Secondly, acceptance about what you can realistically achieve.

In the early days, that might mean just one or two hours a week. That’s a good start.

Don’t worry if it’s a tiny amount of time. Just focus on what you want to achieve and try your best to do it. Yes, it might take longer than you would like. But it’s something. And in my view, something is better than nothing.  Even if you just manage to read one 10 minute blog about setting up your dream business, that’s a step in the right direction.

I’ve given up thinking about how much more I could achieve if I wasn’t a parent carer. To be honest, if it wasn’t for my son, I doubt I would have had the guts to go freelance anyway. I’d probably be 9-5ing in some faceless corporation by now, and bitching about Bob from Accounts. I have a lot to thank my son for!

  1. Self-care

Voice of experience speaking here!

You might be surprised just how excited you feel about starting your business, especially if you’ve felt dragged down by the stress of sorting out a diagnosis or suitable education for your child (experiences will vary hugely depending on the disability).

So what do I mean by self-care? I’m talking about the basics! Sleep, eating at the right times, drinking water and getting some exercise. I know how challenging this can be. The needs of your child can be overwhelming. But it’s important to try.

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A retreat would be nice! But I’m talking about the basics here – eat, sleep and exercise.

It’s surprising how invigorating thinking about something new can be. If you find time to study, read and plan your business, you might find that you have a new lease of life.

And that’s when it becomes tempting to neglect your basic needs in favour of putting everything into your business, on top of your caring role.

Please don’t!

Your child and business depend on your health. Take care of yourself the best that you can.

  1. Get help

You can’t do it all yourself. So get help if you can. This will mean things to different people.

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My greatest help is having my son educated in a special school. He’s well supported, so I can relax when he’s away from me and his anxiety at home is reduced. I also take advantage of the playscheme his school offers in the holidays and as he gets older, I have will have options available for after-school club and further respite.

I also pay out for extra help with the mundane stuff. That means paying someone to help with the ironing during busy times, and someone to help with the dog walking. That’s enough for now, but my son’s getting older and what I need will change.

If you can’t justify paid help, try negotiating with family members. Draw up a rota of who does what. If you have other children, get buy-in from them. My older son (who doesn’t have a disability) has assigned jobs in the house, for which he’s awarded merits that go towards treats or experiences in half-term.  (Update: he’s now hit the teenage years, so increasingly this means cash incentives!)

  1. Make time for your heartbreak

I mean it.

Your child has a disability. It hurts. That never goes away. The fears for their future, wondering what caused their disability (I’m speaking as an autism parent here) and absorbing how much your world has changed. It’s always there, just underneath the surface.

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My beautiful boy.

As time goes on, you don’t think about it all the time. But every once in a while, something happens or someone says something, and reality of your situation slaps you straight in face. Sometimes when you least expect it.

However busy you are, however successful your business is, whatever other great things happen – just respect your own feelings about this.

It’s okay to feel really shit about this thing that you just can’t change; your child’s disability.  Sometimes you’ll be cool about it. Other times you’ll feel sad, angry, frustrated, depressed. Acknowledge your feelings. They’re real – as real as it gets. And only by accepting that, can you embrace your situation and build a positive life (and business).

  1. Be the best you can be

Be yourself. And be good at what you do, at work and at home. Work hard at building your business, and giving your child the care and quality of life they deserve.

Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t be open about my caring role. Life has shown me that it changes people’s reactions towards me. It might even lose me business from time-to-time. But I’m okay with that.

Over time, I’ve come to realise that being a parent carer is a strength, not a weakness. And clients like to know who they’re working with. I’m the reliable type, so if I think I can’t meet a deadline or put the amount of work needed into a project, I don’t take it on in the first place.

Parenting a child with autism has taught me about communication, patience, empathy and given me the courage to carve out a different life to the one I thought I was going to live. My achievements might be small, but I’m proud of them. 

How does it work for you?

If you’re a parent carer, who also runs a business, I’d love to hear from you. What are your challenges and coping strategies? Do you have any tips to share?

Alison x

 

 

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About me: I’m a Freelance Copywriter based in Milton Keynes. If you’re struggling to find the time, or inclination, to write engaging blog posts for your website, I’d love to help. 

There’s a simple form on my contacts page or you can call me on 07809 599055 (if it goes to voicemail leave a message and I’ll get back asap).