Every year, from the day the clocks go back until approximately 11.59pm on December 31st, the British people are conditioned to charmingly think of the dark evenings and biting cold as ‘seasonal’ and ‘cosy’ – rather than what they actually are, which is depressing and tedious. Seriously, whoever invented Christmas was a marketing GENIUS.
Come January 1st, my family along with every other wake up with the same thought. ‘Er, when can we get some sun?!’
I adore my annual pilgrimage abroad and am very fortunate to have experienced some fantastic vacations. Europe and the Mediterranean; Barbados; Florida, California, New York to name a few. Of course, these were all in the years BC- before children. Once the little people come along, holidays are still wonderful, but obviously you have to modify your expectations somewhat. And more importantly, in order for it to be any sort of holiday at all, you need some backup.
‘Hi mum and dad! Er, I’m sorry that the last time you took me on holiday I was embarrassed to be seen dead with you. How do you fancy two weeks abroad to spend time with us and your lovely grandchildren? We’ll even let you enjoy a few evenings’ quality time (read:unpaid babysitting) with the boys. Can’t say fairer than that.’
Luckily they agreed to this insane offer, so the next challenge was planning where to go and what to do. Any holiday with little ones requires a lot of forward thought (well, at least I think it does. I hear that some people take their children camping in tents?!)
Long or short haul? (Well, short, unless you are a real glutton for punishment). Drive or Fly? Self cater or go all-inclusive?
Having a child with Autism, however, throws up several more considerations. First, there is the safety issue- anywhere we stay needs to be secure so he can’t wander off, and with no balconies he can fall from or easily accessible pools he can fall into (or, ahem, throw things into). Obviously these are things any parent needs to consider, but James is the ultimate escape artist with zero sense of danger but extremely good climbing ability.
James is also an incredibly fussy eater and if the food isn’t to his taste, he’ll happily go hungry . Plus, as I’ve mentioned once or twice, he can lash out towards other children without provocation. So with all of these points in mind, all inclusive family resorts are generally out of the question.
A home from home, we decided, was what was required. But with thousands to choose from, narrowing it down to one that actually met our needs was a mammoth task. Adhering to my usual policy of ‘if in doubt, Google it’, I simply typed in ‘villas with fenced off pools’ and amazingly, came across a website (www.vintagetravel.co.uk) with my exact search criterion:
Bingo! Honestly, what did we ever do before the Internet?
We decided upon a fabulous villa in the Costa Brava region of Spain, in the quiet village of Ullastret, a short driving distance away from the beach. It had a walled, gated garden that even James couldn’t escape from, and a private fenced off pool. Perfect.
The next question was how to get there. The previous year, we had travelled to France by car. Whilst we had a fantastic time, there was no way I was volunteering for another fifteen hours of Elmo on a loop, retrieving spat-out dummies and various toys from the footwells and shoving digestive biscuits into bored little mouths for a bit of peace. It was alright for Matt doing the driving. I offered to take the wheel for part of the journey, but he wasn’t keen on that idea. I can’t imagine why not.
So the decision was taken to fly. However bad it was, I reasoned, we would be there in two hours. But as our holiday approached, a horrible thought occurred to me. Two hours on a plane I could handle, just about.. But what about the airport?
If you read my last post about our trip to Eurodisney, you’ll remember that James simply doesn’t do queuing. Or standing still full stop, to be honest. Total meltdowns ensue: kicking, punching, screaming and throwing himself on the floor. It is not to be confused with a mere tantrum. There was simply no way we were going to be able to join the throng of people in line for the bag drop and security check, or at the departure gate.
I picked up the phone and spoke to a lady at Easyjet, who could not have been more helpful. She immediately added a special assistance note onto his boarding pass, meaning that we could bypass the bag drop, and also have priority boarding. The only remaining problem was security, which was out of Easyjet’s remit. We just had to hope for the best.
On D Day, we rose at 3am for a 7am flight. This was partially by design- the deciding factor in choosing Easyjet over Ryanair was the time of the flight. With any luck, after waking up at 3am, there was a fighting chance that at least one of our children might fall asleep on the plane.
Our first hurdle came at the long stay carpark. We had to board a bus to the terminal, but unfortunately before we could do that, there was a long queue to check in the car. James stood, desolate, as the first bus drove away without us on it. ‘Its ok’, I soothed, ‘We can get the next one!’. But it was no use; and anyway, we didn’t make the next one either. By the time three or four full bus loads had left for the airport without us, James was in full blown meltdown mode and I was feeling it’s full force, while everyone around me simply gawped. We braced ourselves for a difficult morning.
It was a different story however when we got to the airport itself. On the advice of another Springboard mum, we went directly to the special assistance desk and explained James’ needs. Now, despite the fact that James has a diagnosed condition and is entitled to Disability Living Allowance, I always feel incredibly cheeky explaining to people that we essentially need to jump the queue. After all, what four year old enjoys standing in line at the airport? The difference, though, is that not only do crowds and unfamiliar surroundings distress James, he also hasn’t the faintest idea what is going on, or why he is expected to stand still. Explanations don’t help, because his comprehension is nowhere near advanced enough. Imagining it from James’ perspective, it must be a very frightening experience.
Luckily, I can’t speak highly enough of the OCS staff at Bristol Airport. We were accompanied straight to the front of the queue for security, the whole process taking around five minutes. From there we were shown to a special waiting area in the departure lounge where we would board a private minibus straight to the plane to take our seats while the aircraft was still empty. I felt vaguely like a celebrity- particularly amid the stares of people clearly wondering why the hell we were entitled to special treatment. I didn’t let this bother me; If they knew what their eardrums had been spared, they would have thanked me.
Once on the plane, James was a dream. For a week or so leading up to the holiday I had been looking at a book called ‘a Journey by Aeroplane’ with him, and once on board I think he finally had a concept he could grasp. Takeoff and ascent had him practically passing out with excitement- plus, perhaps the early start and the morning’s exertions were finally catching up with him. About fifteen minutes into the flight he fell straight to sleep and woke up on the runway at Barcelona. Result. If only I could fall asleep as easily!
I admit that the British snob in me was not expecting the same standard of service in Spain as we had received in Bristol, but once again we were blown away. No queues, no stress. All in all it was probably the easiest flight I had ever experienced. Should any of this be a surprise? Not really, but it was. I suppose as an autism parent I’ve become accustomed to society just not understanding the daily challenges Autistic people face. It was nice, for once, to discover that wasn’t the case.
We had a wonderful week in Spain. Ironically, after all the time spent searching for a villa with a fenced off pool, James worked out how to scale the fence within about an hour of arriving- and it was actually the washing machine, situated in the outhouse next to the pool, that had attracted him. He didn’t even get in the pool until the last day. Instead, he spent most of the holiday putting clothes in the washing machine, whether they needed it or not!
On the journey home we asked James what he had enjoyed about his holiday. It was clear that three things had stuck out for him. Top of the list was, naturally, ‘The bloody washing machine’ (whoops…. You need to be very careful what you say around James!). This was closely followed by ‘the lovely fan’ in our room, which provided endless amusement. Last but not least was the aeroplane. Although he didn’t specifically mention it, I’m sure he enjoyed running around on the beach, too… As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed not having to do any washing when we got home. Happy days!