I love holidays. Who doesn’t?! The anticipation, the excitement, the memories you’re going to make as a family.
When Tabitha was born my husband and I used to spend hours dreaming of all the amazing holidays we hoped to take as a family; beach holidays, city breaks, maybe Disneyland one day, the world was our oyster.
By the time Tabitha turned 5 and Franklin 3, I’d accepted that we weren’t going to be ‘That’ family, but I refused to accept we couldn’t dream of holidays at all, we’ll just do it differently, our way.
We hadn’t had a holiday yet as a family. Tabitha deserves to have a holiday and we have always been conscious of her not missing out on experiences because of Franklin’s struggles. I was desperate for a change of scenery (and quite close to cracking up as I climbed the walls!). So, after overcoming an initial cold sweat at the very thought of it, my holiday research commenced, as did the military planning and preparation.
•In the UK (a car journey is all we will endeavour for the foreseeable!)
•Small site – this was a priority, ensuring it would never be too busy, noisy or overwhelming, even in the height of summer.
•Enclosed and secure outdoor area (garden/decking) – Franklin is a flight-risk. He has no awareness of danger whatsoever, he runs off (and he’s rapid!) so we need a secure enclosed space for his safety.
•Spacious kitchen and dining area (god damn you restaurants, I will tackle you one day!)
•Numerous stairgates in the property
•A safe environment, pedestrianised (Franklin has zero concept of the roadside)
•Relaxed and spacious surroundings
•Understanding and accommodating owners – we’ll be asking a lot of questions in advance, some unorthodox!
•Early check in – the earlier the better, as much time as possible for Franklin to settle before expecting (and praying) for him to sleep in a new bedroom.
With my extensive list in tow, I managed to find an amazing site in Devon. A small farm cottage site with just 12 cottages. We could rest assured it would never be too busy or noisy. It had plenty of outdoor activities for Franklin and Tabitha. A tennis court, golf course, outdoor play area, etc. There were acres of grounds for the kids to run around in, and for Franklin to run off steam in relative privacy, where we could escape from other families if the need arose (who am I kidding, when the need arose!).
I printed pictures off their website showing all the various facilities and importantly, of inside our cottage. In the 6 weeks leading up to the holiday, I showed Franklin the pictures at least twice a day, every day. The visual aid is vital to his understanding, to give him some awareness of what is to come. I can’t explain it to him, he understands very limited verbal language, so visual is the only means I have.
I made lists of every conceivable comforter and reinforcer that might be required:
-Franklin’s ‘comfort’ blanket
-His favourite toys
-A number of his hand comforters – cars, number board (+ spares)
-Franklin’s own bedding, pillow & pillowcases
-Favourite pyjamas (he’d only wear one specific pair)
-Favourite cup (the only one he’d use)
-Favourite plate (as above)
-Blackout blinds for his bedroom – The only way of Franklin sleeping is if his room is completely dark.
-Nursery rhyme CD & DVD (these can help alleviate anxiety when he is feeling particularly anxious)
-Food – a selection of his favourite foods (a precaution in case we couldn’t pick up the particular favourite or specific brand while we were there, he’s fussy, to put it mildly)
-Clothes washing capsules – we took our own for the same reason as above
-Tangible reinforcers (palma violets, mini party biscuits) – for those unfortunate moments when nothing else will do.
We were lucky to find accommodating owners. It was obvious from our initial enquiries how helpful they were going to be. Had they not shown an inkling of understanding and consideration we would have discounted their site immediately, having a child with autism is hard enough.
When we first arrived Franklin was decidedly upset. He refused to walk, even inside our cottage. I spent the first 2 days with him attached to my hip. He refuses to walk when he isn’t 100% comfortable with his surroundings (all too often!). When I did manage to put him down he mostly cried and rocked in the corner of the room on his blanket. He needed to self regulate a lot in those first few days, as anticipated. We had taken plenty of craft activities and games to entertain Tabitha, and my husband and I alternated taking her out to use the facilities for brief spells.
The first two days we didn’t venture far. We didn’t want to overload or bombard him. Slowly does it. By day 3 Franklin was gradually becoming comfortable inside the cottage. He sat on the doorstep and even ventured out onto the decking! He’d refused to go outside thus far so it was huge progress.
There was an indoor pool with 24 hour access. This was ideal. Tabitha loves swimming, Franklin not quite so much. We could use the pool and opt for a quiet time (preferably uninhabited!), early in the morning or later in the evening, to give Tabitha the enjoyment of it every day and Franklin plenty of time and space to adjust to being in the pool (protest and scream loudly). We held him in our arms in the water for the most part. We later tried a large float, hoping the support of it around him would help him feel secure. Franklin cried for the majority of our swimming pool sessions, but with less intensity each time.
There was an indoor playbarn. We avoided this in the daytime because it might be occupied and noisy, but it worked perfectly for us in the evenings. Franklin often has an hour in the evening where he seeks a lot of sensory stimulation (aka his mad hour!). He runs, spins, climbs and jumps. The playbarn became our sanctuary for the final hours before bed each evening.
By day five we were making strides, Franklin was in much better spirits. He was beginning to feel comfortable which meant he was calmer and less anxious. There were plenty of moments in those last three days where he was genuinely enjoying himself and delighting in his surroundings, smiling and laughing away, it was magical.
On day 6 we managed a brief trip to the local beach. Granted Franklin would not step off the picnic mat. He categorically would not step on or touch the sand. However, he was content confined to the safety of the picnic mat, while Tabitha played in the sea.
We stayed no longer than an hour. Not wanting to overload him or the risk of a meltdown, and ensuring we ended the experience on a positive.
We decided at that very moment we’ll be returning here the following year, a little less nervous and a little bit stronger, and hopeful that by day four next time, Franklin will hit the happiness mark.
We knew a holiday was going to be a challenge but it’s worth braving some challenges. We kept our expectations realistic. We enjoyed the good moments, we LOVED the great moments and we handled the difficult moments. Holidays are no longer just a distant dream.