Last week, our family went on holiday to Portugal: just my husband and myself, our two young sons and Autism.
Baking-hot weather and late nights dancing at the mini-disco combined with countless sugar-highs from consuming truckloads of Calippos doesn’t exactly make for a relaxing time on holiday with young kids. It’s challenging to say the least and most parents will tell you that their asses don’t see a chair (let alone a sunbed) for most of their family holiday. However, although all kids can be hard to manage on holiday, taking Autism as an extra passenger to tropical shores is a whole new ball game!
Autism is a huge part of our family and so leaving it at home whilst we jetted off to warmer climates just wasn’t an option ( Hell, neither was leaving behind the extra 2 stones of flesh that I’d acquired over the last year). Autism is a part of our son, he is part of our family and so where we go, his partner in crime follows (as does my excess flab).
Our son LOVES holidays, but his Autism finds them more of a struggle. Stanley is bright, friendly, kind, funny and quiet but unfortunately, his Autism has a tendency to overrule these wonderful qualities when plonked in the middle of an unfamiliar situation.
His Autism is loud, rude and sometimes aggressive. It doesn’t like changes to routine, it doesn’t like unfamiliar smells or sounds and it is positively abhorred by food that is not beige (what, no McDonalds?! ) . It doesn’t like to share….EVER!! It is also terrified of mosquitoes, wasps and anything that flies (except for Iron Man). In short, his Autism struggles with pretty much everything that you’d expect to experience in abundance when on holiday.
Naturally, given the unpredictable and turbulent nature of our additional passenger , our holiday wasn’t exactly the perfectly-peaceful affair that we’d been fantasising about all year.
I ain’t going to sugarcoat it. At times, Autism was quite the jackass!!
The airport was the first ordeal. Queuing for forty five minutes to check in wasn’t fun….particularly for our youngest son Bob who was on the receiving end of his brother’s Autism after it decided to pass the time in the queue by attempting to strangle him DEAD! We all somehow made it through security unscathed (albeit slightly bruised), and that was when Autism declared that it just HAD to have a packet of Pickled Onion Monster Munch or else Stanley was going to ‘starve to DEATH!’ on the spot! (Autism is nothing if not dramatic and we are certain that a future in Hollywood awaits it and our son)
After boarding the plane, Autism took control of our son once again by causing him to become desperately worried that the plane would crash after hitting some mild turbulence. Stanley subsequently failed to control his inner thoughts and yelled, with abject passion might I add, ‘Are we going to crash?? We ARE!!! We are going to CRASHHHH!!!!@??!?’*
*NB. Luckily most of the passengers were on Stag dos and Hen parties and so they were too shitfaced to panic and start assuming the crash position. However, I am certain that I saw an elderly lady knock out a few Hail Marys and bolt a neat gin believing her death was imminent.
When we arrived at the hotel, Autism had to be in control of the elevator and decided that for the rest of our ten day stay, it HAD to let Stan push the button when going up and granted Bob the honour of pressing it when we went down (uh!!). We stuck to this plan religiously (except for one day when I accidentally went against protocol by pressing the button. Needless to say, I then felt the full wrath of Autism…. which my friends, is ugly! )
Our hotel was next door to a massive waterpark which we had to go to every day. Our son absolutely loved it , as did Autism, but as usual, it had to take control of the order in which we went on every ride which meant waking for miles back and forth across the giant park in the sweltering heat. Luckily, they sold beer…..lots of it. So, we drank it….ALL of it.
Despite Stanley being fully aware and accepting of the dangers of UV rays, his Autism HATES lotions and potions, so applying suncream in two hour intervals for ten days straight caused quite the stir by the pool side.
Indeed, Beyonce walking in wearing a leopard print thong would have drawn less attention.
Most people reading this may feel sorry for us. Many folks might think that this doesn’t sound like much of a holiday- that perhaps it was ruined because of the little rascal that is Autism. But on the contrary, I can assure you that we all had a truly wonderful time!
There were many challenges, but there were also many, many triumphs!
After a bumpy start, Autism began to adapt to its new environment and within a matter of days, Stanley mustered the courage to speak to strangers (the guy selling the Strawberry Cornettos got most of his attention). He became used to the routine of putting on suncream and ceased to scream until his throat bled every time I pulled the Nivea Factor 50 out of my bag. I’d go as far as to say that Beyonce might well have soaked up some of the spotlight had she entered the pool area on day three or four.
In time, Stanley became brave enough to jump into the pool alone, to take himself to the toilet unaided (and to ask a stranger for help when he got locked inside said toilet ….oops!) He took control, calmed himself and actually made friends with two lovely little boys in the pool. At one point, I saw him SHARE a bag of Skittles with them which was a sight more dazzling than seeing Hugh Jackman in his underwear.
By the end of the holiday, we left with the names and addresses of these little boys who want to be pen pals with him, regardless of his Autism. It was wonderful…he was accepted- irrespective of his personal challenges.
This long and somewhat rambling post has a point….I promise.
It is this.
Whilst by the pool one day, I met another family who had brought their son and his (as-yet undiagnosed) Autism on holiday with them . It was their first holiday abroad and his mother told me that she was very anxious as she didn’t quite know how her son’s Autism would be received by others. She was terrified that his meltdowns would cause others to stare at him- and to judge them both. She was concerned that the holiday was going to be a disaster!
I told her not to worry*
*I think my exact words were ‘Screw everyone else! I couldn’t give a rat’s ass who is staring at me or my child. Embrace his differences and have the courage to ignore everyone else. In time, you won’t even notice the staring…and if you do, you won’t give a shit!’
The truth is that I more than understood her fears. I have been there…exactly where she was.
For the last nine years, I’ve been at the mercy of our son’s Autism. I’ve suffered the shocking meltdowns in public, the collapsing in to a fit on the floor of Macy’s in New York after an old lady dared to hit the button in the lift before he could, the shrill screaming if a child touched his iPad in Mcdonalds….all of it. I used to feel embarrassed, mortified by what others thought about him, about me and my failings as his mother.
Typically, I found myself avoiding taking him to places where he might kick off. I didn’t want the stress, the judgement, the upset….none of it.
But then one day, I gave myself a hard slap across the face and I woke up to what was important.
Autism is just a part of who Stanley is. There is so much more to him and I could not continue to hide away from the public through fear of being judged. If his Autism was to take over, the world was never going to meet my gorgeous son. So, I learnt to embrace his Autism and in doing so, others did too.
A few days after our conversation, I watched the Mother lure her son into the pool and not surprisingly, his autism did not like it one bit. The little boy screamed as though he was being plunged into a pool of sulphuric acid. However, despite noticeable glaring from multiple sunbathers, the lady persisted and stayed with her son in the pool. By the end of the holiday, she came to tell me that her son had conquered his fear and could now swim!!
A TRUE TRIUMPH!!!
This is a post for parents of children with special needs. Be brave and don’t shy away from taking your children to situations in which you fear that they (or you) might not cope.
Do the opposite and take them everywhere!
Take them out in to the world and show them off!
With every step you take through life, your child will grow and will hopefully learn to embrace new situations. If they don’t, there’s nothing lost, at least you tried. BUT, if you don’t push yourself to try, you’ll never find out just what your child is capable of.
It’s never going to be straightforward. Never without challenges. Never without bouts of severe frustration and sadness. But, if you could see the difference in my son as a result of exposing him to new things, you’d be shocked. His confidence has grown tremendously, his ability to communicate with other kids has totally transformed and with every year that passes by, my faith in his future strengthens.
Most importantly, by taking our children out into the world, we are giving those around us the opportunity to understand Autism, to embrace it, accept it and see that our children are just different, not less.
So, be brave. Reserve that table in that restaurant that you’ve always wanted to take your kids to ( even if your child will only eat plain pasta and chips….who cares?!) Book that holiday. Climb on that water slide. Go to that West End show. Get down McDonalds and eat IN! (Hopefully, your kid WILL get that wretched iPad….and if he doesn’t, shove a McFlurry in his hand to distract him and try again next week) .
Your child may just surprise you, and the perceptions of those around you might just too.