Holidays in Autism Land

At this time of year you might be lucky enough to be planning a holiday. And some of you, thanks to a negative experience in the past might be having trepidations – I have some advice that might make it easier and more enjoyable for everyone.

Where I live on the island of Ireland, it can rain for 10 of the 14 days you have set aside for your break. No matter how scenic the location, you do not want to find yourself cooped up in a holiday house with no broadband, no cable tv and the prospect of hanging around the local Supermarket for entertainment.

The usual indoor amusement centres do not work for people with high sensory needs, and they are expensive anyway.
And ‘Long walks in the Rain followed by an Irish Coffee in a local pub’ are for romantic weekends as a COUPLE.  Not a family of 4 with no clothes dryer.

So take my advice and go somewhere sunny for your holidays. And fly!

The other good reason to go somewhere “foreign” is the fact that it will take you away from all the local news.

By separating yourself from all that, you can see your kids for who they are, not how society wants to portray them. No bad news on the car radio, no negative newspaper headlines (that you can read) and no need to weigh in on the latest Help/Stop/Restore campaign on social media. Put the tablet and smart phone away and read a book. A happy book.

So here is my advice for traveling independently:

1. When booking your accommodation I have two words: SELF CATER!

You will all be much happier.

Where I come from, Full Board is something that you surf on at the beach, so I find it perplexing to hear anyone complaining about taking meals in a busy dining room full of people who do not understand their child’s behaviour. – Give up on having “The Dinner” at midday and just grab what you need at the supermercado, fill the fridge and let everyone eat when they want.

There are literally hundreds of great websites for choosing a villa or apartment to book yourself.
We use “Rent in Nerja” and “Spainaway” as we know exactly what we want.

Please but go on line and shop around. Great Bargains, Great Flexibility in travel times (traveling on a weekday is much quieter) and you might find some you can make an offer on a few extra days if you are not doing the traditional ‘Saturday to Saturday’ booking.

Liam walking safely to the pool on the footpaths at Capistrano Village, Nerja.

We stay in a lovely complex with a mixture of terraced houses and villas, all with gardens with a high stone wall and lockable gate. You can sit in the sun reading a book in the enclosed garden while the kids are indoors safely amusing themselves watching DVDs or playing on iPads/computers. At regular intervals we go swimming so it is not all screentime!

Happy to amuse himself typing his stories on his tablet indoors while I read in the sun.

Self catering doesn’t mean you haveto shop and cook every night. The great thing about holidays outside of Ireland is that you can feed the whole family in a restaurant for less than it costs for a dinner for two here.
Look out for outdoor cafes where a mess will be not only tolerated, but expected and the other diners will be families as loud and raucous as yours – maybe more!

His regular spot at el Merendon on the Balcon de Europe, Nerja.

Kronox Cafe for diet coke and a toasted ham sandwich. (with iPad)

You can also get excellent take-away like pizzas or asian/curries. Dishes go in the bin!

Liam eating Pad Thai on the balcony in the apartment. Delivered by motorcycle delivery guy.
If can be brave and book accommodation and travel independently you can organise your own transfers by hire car or taxi. Private transfers mean you won’t be tied to waiting around for a tour bus that will stop at every resort en-route which is a lot less stressful for your kids.

 Many of the airline and booking companies will recommend car hire companies, taxis or even organise transport for you. Just ask.

2. Prepare: With Social Stories,

If your child can read then write a story on the computer, double-spaced and with pictures to represent each stage of the journey. Make sure you build in rewarding activities to do along the way.

1. Drive to the Airport
2. Take the bags to the desk and get a boarding pass, then go to McDonalds!
3. Then go to the big gate and take off your shoes…..etc
Your child will go through each boring step in order to get to the next interesting step.
You can read the story together several times before the trip and ask teachers and other carers to read and talk about it too.
Finish with photographs of the villa or apartment that you will be staying in, which is easy to obtain from the web. Include photos of the pool, the beach and the places you know your kid will like best. And the mantra “Holidays are Fun!”
For a pictorial social story go here to the Dublin Airport website for a downloadable guide to planning your journey.
You can even download a story to your smart phone or iPad – here and here
3. Packing: Bring home with you!
I am not mad, I just mean bring a few choice items that the kids particularly associate with home such as their favourite characters on duvet covers and pillowslips.
When you get to the villa or apartment or even hotel room, go straight into the bedroom and put the pillows in the pillowcases and a sheet inside your covers.
In the early days I actually took them straight off the bed so they smelt like home – important for our sensory sensitive kids.
I also take a couple of story books, and as many kids magazines as they have (CBeebies, Peppa Pig or Disney etc), as you can leave those behind at the end of the holiday.
Bring familiar toys to scatter around and look for ‘Beanie’ versions to save space when packing. Choose one toy each for the plane and put the rest in the hold. 
Also pack as much of their favourite snack foods as you can – if you know you can’t get it in spain. We bring vegemite (of course) and Cadbury’s snacks for Gracie and then ration them. She does have to eat local foods too – but it helps when stressed to have something familiar.
4. At the Airport

Traveling is much simpler with the regulation carry on bag only. And the essential “Autism” tee-shirt.

If you are traveling with special kids, it really helps if you have a way to identify them. I always dress my son in a school teeshirt that has “Autism School” on the back. It makes it easier to spot them in the crowd too!

You can ask also your Autism professional or school principal for a letter explaining that your child has Autism, or obtain an “Autism Card” from Autism Ireland here.
(apply for the card well in advance as they can take quite a while to be printed)
Remember, the airport staff would rather facilitate you than face the risk of a meltdown, so please have a thick neck and ask for help. People can be ever so helpful and in Ireland, not at all judgemental.
Top Tip:  Book with a good airline that offers seat reservations and priority boarding for special needs.
Cheap fares are fabulous – for singles and couples with no children, NOT FAMILIES!
It is supposed to be a HOLIDAY so spend a few extra bucks and avoid nightmares.
Online check-in is also a fantastic idea. Less queuing. Happier kids. We have also started travelling with carry-on baggage only. On arrival at our destination airport we can skip the queue at the baggage carosel and go straight to the car hire desk.
It does mean you limit the amount of liquids you can carry, but you can always buy more shampoo, bath gel etc at the supermarket when you get to your holiday house.

When it comes to security, please be considerate of other travelers and have all your gear packed into the recommended sized bags. Ask your partner to empty pockets of coins and offer to remove shoes as you approach security. 
Open bags and remove laptops and iPads and make sure liquids are in regulation see through bags as requested. We carry a letter from our doctor explaining that our kids have autism and that Gracie will only drink the one brand of apple juice. I carry 6 of this juices sealed, and offer them to security for checking. Be cooperative and grateful for the help and thank everyone afterwards.
5. Bring an activity to entertain them at the airport AND on the plane.
Laptops, Mini Dvd players and the iPod/iPad and iPhone are our friends!.
Pre-load your iDevice with movies and apps before leaving and keep them as a surprise for maximum amusement.
Go to the gate early so the crew can board you ahead of anyone else, so don’t dillydally in the shops for too long. However a lot of walking prior to boarding is a good thing..
Top Tip: when Booking Your Seat Allocation: – Mark Your Man!
If traveling with 2 adults and 2 kids, don’t put the kids in the row of three and allow your partner to sit across the aisle. 
He will ally himself with the other passengers and put on the “Headphones of Invisibility” that block out all sounds of turmoil in the seats across from him while you struggle with the kids alone.
Book 2 on 2 with the Seat Kicker of the family (there’s always one) seated behind a family member. Match one parent to one child from the moment you reach the airport and stay on them until your reach your accommodation or home. Transfers must be agreed to by both parties and only in case of emergencies like going to the toilet.
If you can book the back row even better – you’ll have ’em surrounded!
Top Tip: Bring a hard cover copy book and colored markers to draw on until after take off when you can bring down the tray table . Don’t assume that you have to wait until the seat belt light is off before switching on the Portable DVD players. When the plane levels off and the Flight crew are moving about the plane – ask. 

Laptop, tablet AND a seat back TV means a very happy traveller.

The sooner you get the entertainment started, the better the flight is for everybody

Just be sure to incorporate the need to switch off the entertainment, into your social story.

6. On board food, drink and entertainment.
Bring a selection of small snacks individually wrapped to hand out during the flight.
While I have to carry the exact brand of Apple juice for Grace, we always let Liam order a diet coke as it is part of his reward for flying. 
Go easy on the fizzy drinks or salty/sugary snacks as they can induce hyperactivity or nausea. Bring a towel or sarong/pashmina to use as a blanket or clothes protector in case of spills.
Also; anti-bacterial hand gel is useful as the toilets can be a bit manky in the airport and on the plane. And Bring Wipes!
Light clothes in layers are best – as the children will not thank you as they swelter at the baggage carousel in Malaga in their best “traveling clothes.” – but bring a light jacket for the homeward journey.
Sandals are great as you can get them on and off easily if your feet smell swell. (just don’t wear socks with sandals or you will be stopped by the fashion police)

Top Tip: If you are considering pre-flight sedatives, get a doctor’s advice as Phenergan and Valium can have the opposite effect. And test all meds at home 1-2 days before the flight.

7. Safety.
Make sure the children have I.D, on their person. God forbid they should get away from you, but if they do, be sure they have their name, age, condition and your mobile phone number on their person.

I write my mobile number on my kid’s arm with a sharpie marker.

I dress the children in bright tee-shirts with the name of their AUTISM school in large lettering.
Stripes are also very easy to see from a distance and easy to describe if god forbid, you do need help to catch a runaway. Liam also has an old iPhone which he knows how to answer. I ring it if I can’t see him.
Wearing the school tee-shirt really helps with “the Look” that some people give you, and makes strangers a lot kinder.

8. Enjoy yourself when you get there!
The great thing about holidays in Latin countries is that children are very visible. People are very warm and friendly and very aware of Autism and special needs.

But follow your child’s lead. Day trips and “adventures” are to be avoided as you need to establish a routine that makes your special needs child feel safe and comfortable.

Make a visual calendar that shows each day and a photo to represent each activity eg. Beach, pool, cafe etc. Follow what your child actually likes and don’t force them to live up to anyone else’s expectations of what a “holiday” should be about.

Doing the same thing every day actually works well. They know what to expect, you get to relax.

Liam’s daily aperitif of coke and a ham sandwich in Cafe Anahi
Liam always gets his favourite table in El Merendon, the outdoor pizza place.

If your kids are verbal, teach them to say Hello, Please and Thank you in the local language and prompt them to use it wherever you go. People love it when you make an effort.
Tip well, use the same cafes or coffee shops regularly and you will find you are welcomed back and indulged next time.

You can even practice ordering in Spanish (or French or German) yourself using Grace App. Download the App and Follow the guide on the website here. You can switch it back to English when you get home.

And Be sure to give each other a time out where one parent looks after the kids and the other goes shopping or for a hike or Tapas and beer. Then swap. 
Because that really is the main thing. Enjoy yourself. xx

Readers in the UK should check out THIS link for getting through airports.
In Ireland the DAA do a wonderful job. Go HERE to see what they have done.

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