EVEN as a child, there were moments on family holidays when I seriously wondered whether this was supposed to be actual relaxation or just some sort of endurance test. Like the time I caught my Welly in an underground river climbing a mountain in Scotland, and no one could retrieve it; when I tripped over on a family hike and landed in a cowpat - and when I got stranded on a high rock as the tide came in and was rescued by teenagers who delivered me safely back to my folks. They were reading newspapers on the beach quite oblivious to my peril, possibly because they’d left me in the hands of my older brother, who’d sort of forgotten about me.
So even without autistic kids, I learnt that family holidays are pretty much an exercise in futility if you’re going to a) aim for perfection and b) please everyone all of the time.
Like many other kids with autism, Bobby would rather swim with man-eating sharks than relinquish any precious hours on his home computer. Sorry, that's our home computer.
But like many parents who have a child with autism, we refuse to be entirely led by him, believing that however unwelcome they are at first, new experiences do widen the boys’ horizons and are good for them. Bobby’s default position is ‘no’, but you can’t really change that unless you challenge it occasionally. In the last year, he has learnt that 'no' is really 'yes' when it comes to vanilla ice-cream, Mr Whippy cones and a small selection of fruit and veg. Could The Highlands perhaps meet with his approval if given a chance?
It was a gamble, that's for sure. Let’s be honest, a holiday with autistic kids should be re-named a ‘hell-away’, which would be more accurate but not necessarily what you want to be admitting to friends and neighbours. They always text: ‘Have a great time!’ as if that’s actually a possibility when you’re transplanting two kids who enjoy routine to a new bedroom in a new country with a new daily schedule.
In preparation, all familiar items had been packed as well as some new and interesting sensory toys plus new Thomas DVD for Alec's delight, a Skylanders quiz book and Horrid Henry DVD for Bobby.
All the way up to Scotland, a little voice from the back seat queried:
“Have you packed my DS?”
“Have you packed my blankies?”
“Have you packed my Horrid Henry video?”
“Have you packed the iPad?”
“Do they have apples in Scotland?”
No. Of course they do, yes.
“Does the cottage have the internet?”
Er…let’s change the subject shall we?
A brief wander around Gardenstown situated in The Highlands on the east coast, revealed that it was steeper than the fib I told Bobby about Wi-Fi hotspots being readily available in the area.
Built into a cliff, it is beautiful (not close up, but the beach is) and remote. On closer inspection, there was one Spa shop, a phone box, a restaurant (that was permanently fully booked) and a ‘gift’ shop containing the 40 year-old contents of someone’s loft.
A quick scout round the boys’ room revealed several little fishing boats that would be smashed to smithereens by Alec within about three days if I didn’t put them out of sight. The absence of a bath was not a problem. We just referred to the shower as a ‘little boy washing machine’. Bobby won’t have showers but he will readily use a Little Boy Washing Machine, a ruse I dreamt up last year in Wales.
Of course we'd also packed the 'holiday anti-nightmare spray' in the form of my travel perfume. If he asked, Gardinia was the technical name for it and it smelled like mum's perfume because neither monsters or nightmares like parents to be around.
When it comes to beaches, Alec doesn’t care about the Scottish weather. He ran up and down the sand whooping and giggling and could be as vocally autistic as he liked, because there was no one around. He headed straight out to sea chanting his loudest, daring the waves to push him over and laughing helplessly as he got sloshed and soaked by them.
I followed him in and – freezing cold - held onto him as the sand rushed away from under our feet. This was the highlight of the holiday for me. The sea is an endless sensory experience and Alec, who struggles with so much in life, seems truly at peace when he’s dashing in and out of rock pools.
Bobby, not the outdoors type, had a bit of a paddle and then recreated some Roblox scenes with stones on the beach. As he’s got older, his autism shows itself in more subtle ways. Rather than tantrum at new surroundings, he shows a rise in ritualistic behaviour. This makes sense to me and I ignore it unless he seems genuinely distressed.
Alec, meanwhile, has got really clever at manipulating me with non-verbal signals. A while back, he pulled down his lower eyelid to show me that his eye was hurting. I made such a fuss of him that he learnt it was a great way of extracting sympathy from mum. On a castle visit, we scanned the information at the entrance to a bedroom we were peering at. We have learnt to read two paragraphs in about 20 seconds, before Alec ducks under the rope or Bobby announces rather loudly what he thinks of the place.
Alec turned to me and, pathetically and very deliberately, pulled down his lower eyelid. This was Alec-speak for ‘this is sooooooo boring’. Once we’d convinced Bobby not to bounce his Mario and Luigi toys along some 400 year-old chaise longue, we emerged into some actual sun.
We were just making a fuss of some friendly ponies when we noticed that Alec had become rather quiet. Looking behind me, I saw that he had stuck his leg through a cattle grid and was waiting patiently, if a little woefully, to be rescued. This is very typical of a passive autistic child. Most kids would scream their heads off and wave their arms about. He just looked a bit perturbed and whimpered slightly.
The rescue was done without fuss (by two of us; I was making a bloody huge fuss) but it summed up the holiday for me. Whether on sea or on land, it’s not Alec but the constant vigilance he requires that makes life tricky on holiday. Poor Al finds at least 5 ways a day of potentially ending his life and you can triple that on holiday, where the hazards are less well known and he's just as brave as ever.
I’m sure there are some parents who sit and read a book on the beach by the time their kids are nine years old. That day will never come for us, and the way we accept it is by introducing the breaks to our lives in other ways – with a girls’ weekend away for me, or a golfing weekend off for Gavin. If we're lucky, a trip away for both of us happens occasionally.
My own relaxation arrives on September 4th at 9am, when the twins go back to school. That, my friends, should be declared as National Duvet Day for all parents who have kept their kids happy for the summer. Particularly those who have managed it with autistic ones.
If this is you, I thoroughly recommend catching up on the housework only after you've had a massive coffee, put your feet up and patted yourself on the back.