My wife’s parents called this week with the offer of a week’s holiday in Devon. Their four grand kids mean the world to them, they said, and they want to spend time with them all together. Questionable sanity aside, this is a hugely generous thing for them to do, though it does not come without its problems. Of course, we would be delighted to take up the offer. It’s a free holiday and all the leg work of finding somewhere has been done for us. But that’s the problem.
Planning holidays with our autistic son in mind can be pretty tricky. There’s so much to take into account. We’ve had plenty of holidays when, kidding ourselves we were a normal family, we’ve suffered a stressful week of tantrums, challenging behaviour, scenes and situations, restrictions, arguments and god knows what else. We just can’t do the things that others take for granted on holiday. Eating out is a no-go, as are many other places you might visit. Otherwise safe environments can become perilous when you have a rampant, unpredictable whirling dervish of a child to take care of.
Nonetheless, I was a little taken aback to hear my wife describe previous holidays as ‘almost ending in divorce’. What on earth could she mean?
Perhaps she was referring to our previous excursion to Devon; the one where we stayed in a damp, tin can of a caravan as the rain lashed down all week, as we sat each night in silence, lest we should wake the boys. That was pre-diagnosis, back when B was merely a little shit and not yet diagnosed with a life long disability. My parents were with us on that holiday too. The plan was that they would spend a few evenings looking after the boys while my wife and I enjoyed some time off. That didn’t happen. I’d joked, before we went, that they would have to be mad to want to be incarcerated with my kids for a week. They weren’t laughing by the end of the week.
That same year we found ourselves in Spain. The flight was fine and the transfers bearable. The heat was not a problem for the boys and the resort had enough to keep them interested. The hotel pool, in particular, was a joyous facility that filled most days for us. Though we had to be hugely vigilant, it was no more of a stressful situation than for those other families with little ones. Where the problems occurred were at mealtimes. It was a ‘gold standard’ or premium type hotel and we were full board. This meant long trousers and shirts, great food and a pleasant dining area. And a total nightmare from start to finish. Quite simply, we could not sit through a meal without there being a scene. And yet, looking round, there were other children sitting beautifully, eating a wide range of food and remaining endearingly inconspicuous. From our table were the cries of refusal, the constant nagging requests to leave, the angry whispered threats from me. It was around this time that I seriously started to doubt my abilities as a parent. If others could do it, why was it so difficult for me? This marked the start of our self banishment from any restaurant that was not McDonald’s. It was a defining, pre-diagnosis moment for us. Going anywhere that required patience and good, quiet behaviour was just asking too much (of both our boys) and was best avoided. Back then, I did not realise it would be a permanent situation. In retrospect, the early signs of autism were there to see.
Perhaps our biggest challenge when taking a break (oh, the irony) away from home has been sleeping arrangements. I’ve lost track of the amount of times we’ve ended up crammed together in one room of a hotel. The excitement of being in the same room at bedtime meant we would spend much of our time peeling them off the ceiling. Then, when it finally got through to them that, yes, we were going to kill them if they didn’t go to sleep, we would sit in silence, waiting for first one, then the other to drop off. Finally, we would hear the gentle sound of a child sleeping. I always feel an enormous wave of love when I look upon my sleeping boys. So beautiful. So asleep. Then comes the discordant sound of snoring. My wife, too has joined them. So, another early night then.
Worse is the fact that, nine times out of ten, we have ended up taking a child each and sharing their bed with them. On our first trip to Devon this was the only way we could ensure they would settle. I did not share the warmth of the marital bed at all that week. In fact, my wife and I probably spent a fair amount of time bickering that holiday. This is something we do well at the best of times. Take us away from home and add the huge stress of looking after an autistic child in an unfamiliar environment and we’re even better at it.
Last year, for the first year, we got it right with a trip to Wales. Despite being a wet week, we were better prepared and had realistic expectations. we spend a little more on a great apartment and, for the first time, the boys had their own room which was on a different floor. We didn’t try and eat out, except for the odd bag of chips along the sea front and ate mostly in the apartment, well equipped as it was. My abiding memory is of the boys playing till late in the day on near deserted beaches, having the time of their lives splashing in and out of pools. They had begun to start playing together and I saw glimpses of a possible future where things would be alright.
We have what we hope will be a similar holiday booked up for this year (and surely we’re due some dry weather?). And then there is the holiday to Devon. My wife’s parents had found what they thought was an ideal place and, said my father-in-law, we wouldn’t really spend much time in the accommodation anyway so it wasn’t too important what it was like. It’s understandable that they might not take into account some of the problem’s we might encounter but we had to point out that we would spend lots of time in there. We probably wouldn’t be joining them in restaurants or other visits. We might need to think carefully about sleeping arrangements and how we organised our week. We might drive them absolutely mad too.
These are potential problems and, I think, a wake up call to the grandparents that we can’t just get up and go without careful consideration. As always though, the benefits for the children helped us make our decision to go. Would they have a fantastic time surrounded by (most of) the people they love most? Yes. Would there be beaches, bouncy castles and ice creams galore? Yes. Would it be a non-stop adventure packed with laughter and fun? Almost certainly.
And you never know, B’s mum and I might even get that night off we never had.