For Cathy and Nigel Dobbs, having a chilled-out holiday felt like an unreachable dream. Trips away since having their autistic son had never been relaxing. In fact, they were pretty full-on when faced with the stress of regular melt-downs.
Here, Cathy shares her recent breakthrough moment from a family trip to Feurteventura, with some helpful tips for travelling with autistic or anxious children.
So, I’ve got this hypnosis app on my phone. The aim of the app is to get me off to sleep quicker, and while I’m drifting off it supposedly re-trains my brain to think like a thin person. Now, I can’t say whether it’s working or not, but that’s not the point.
You see, the way the app helps me to drift off is by getting me to imagine I’m on a beach. To think about the waves lapping at my toes and the palm trees swaying in the warm breeze. It’s very relaxing – but I can only use my imagination as it’s something I’ve never actually experienced.
On a recent holiday to Fuerteventura, however, on the stunning Costa Calma beach, there I was laying on a sunbed, staring up at a cloudless sky in the warm 21 degree sunshine. All I could hear was the sound of the sea and my husband and son laughing as they jumped over the waves.
As I watched them having fun, I realised this was the closest I’d come to that hypnotic facsimile. This was total relaxation, on holiday. As the sun glistened on the waves that rippled just a few feet away from me, I brushed my hands through the warm, soft sand, and let myself soak up the moment. It was true happiness, and I physically felt the pent-up tension just drift away with each lapping wave.
Last summer, we’d booked a self-catering holiday to Cala’n Bosch in Menorca. My son, William – who’s autistic, found it a struggle from start to finish. From waiting around at the airport to going to different restaurants around the resort, it was all simply too much for him. The result was regular melt-downs that left us feeling both embarrassed and stressed.
By the end of our ten-day break, we were spending our evenings cooking and eating on the balcony, too nervous to venture to one of the lovely-looking restaurants, which surrounded the beautiful harbour.
It made us think more carefully when booking our next break, about how we could focus on his wants and needs. If William was happy, we’d have a much more enjoyable time.
If we could arrive at the hotel less frazzled from a frantic journey, I thought, at least we would be off to a better start! So we decided to try Birmingham Airport’s Disabled Person Needing Assistance (DPNA) service.
This is free, and available to any passenger with a disability. What I found particularly useful in our case was, the airport has worked with Autism West Midlands to create an online guide for those with autism and their carers, which details everything you need to do to reduce stress at the airport. Before our holiday we contacted our operator, Jet2Holidays, to ask them to add the service to our tickets. We were issued ‘hidden disability’ lanyards at the Assisted Travel counter on arrival, and the difference it made was incredible.
That sunflower-covered lanyard bumped us to the front of queues, led us down express lanes and allowed us to skip the bright lights of duty free. Within 20 minutes of arriving at the airport we were sat with a coffee, watching William happily running around at the airport’s Sky Zone play area.
We also had a choice of when to board the plane. We chose to be the first on, to avoid jostling through lots of people, and get William settled in his seat and comfortable. Anxiety being cut to practically zero meant we arrived at our hotel feeling more relaxed already – and we were all excited to explore our home for the next seven days.
Top of our list was a hotel on the beach. William isn’t a fan of waiting for anything so, if he can get his feet on the sand in less than five minutes, we’re onto a winner! We also decided to give all-inclusive a go. Familiarity is key. The predictability of going to the same restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner would hopefully take some of the anxiety away.
We arrived at 4pm, so we hunted down the hotel’s beach bar which, as the name would suggest, looks straight out onto the white sandy shore and the sea beyond. This is definitely the closest you can get!
One thing we didn’t pick up from TripAdvisor reviews is – there’s a range of playground equipment on the beach, which William gleefully ran straight to. We sat there with our feet up, free beer and sangria in our hands, looking out at the sea and our son playing in the sand dunes – we knew that this holiday would be totally different to others we’d had with William.
The hotel doesn’t have any high-rise blocks, which I felt was important as this could be intimidating for William. The grounds are beautifully kept, with wide paths, so it was easy to walk side-by-side and hold his hand as he got used to his surroundings. In fact, the spacious feel throughout the complex was wonderful. It never felt too ‘busy’ or loud, and there was a generally calm and happy atmosphere around the hotel.
The three pools were all a little chilly for our liking. They looked inviting, and we may have even coaxed William onto the waterslides, but I guess that’s a pay-off for visiting in the February half term rather than the height of summer. There were plenty of children braving the water, and looked to be having a great time. William can be nervous about swimming, so it wasn’t a big issue for us, although a warmer pool for Nigel and I to take a dip in would have been nice.
One thing that made our holiday was the buffet restaurant. We feasted to our hearts’ content at breakfast, lunch and dinner. We were astounded at the vast range and the high quality of the food available to us, with plenty of healthy options too. There were around ten tasty salad dishes to choose from along with pizza, pasta dishes, meat stews, Canarian potatoes and freshly-cooked fish and pork chops.
We were tempted by freshly baked bread, an assortment of cheeses and meats, along with yoghurts, nuts, biscuits and cake. If that wasn’t enough, there was a chocolate fountain with a range of marshmallows and fruit. William’s eyes were popping out at some of the delicious treats laid out. This wasn’t a time for instilling healthy food choices, we let him enjoy whatever he wanted. Most mornings it was freshly-flipped pancakes, oozing with Nutella.
Both the choice, and the environment, helped us immensely with William. Being a buffet restaurant, people were constantly moving around rather than sitting stationary being served, so no-one really noticed if William had a minor melt-down, or let out a random scream. We knew he didn’t need to be on his best behaviour, so we relaxed as well.
As for the choice of food, we knew if William didn’t like the dinner I’d picked up for him, we could put the plate to one side and get him something different. At one sitting he had beef stew, chips and pizza along with a broccoli and cheese bake. This is something you couldn’t do in your average restaurant, but he loved it! Water, wine and soft drinks were also unlimited, and the restaurant staff were so fast and efficient, nothing was too much trouble and they always had a smile for William.
There were a number of trips available, the most popular to the nearby Oasis Park where visitors can enjoy a camel safari and sealion show, along with elephants, giraffes and crocodiles to name a few. We decided this would be something for William to enjoy maybe a couple of years down the line, when he gets a bit braver. While he enjoys the simple pleasures of digging in the sand and jumping around in the sea, we would make the most of it.
My final tip for parents with anxious children would be, if you find somewhere that works – and allows you that all-important relaxation time, book it again!
I love adventure, and love to experience new places, but for the time being I’m happy to let William dictate our holiday destinations. For us, taking pleasure in seeing William happy is the most important thing – and that’s what ultimately allows us to relax and enjoy ourselves. As William grows, we know he’ll grow more confident and be able to cope with more. For now, this is more than enough. Going somewhere that already has such wonderful memories attached will make him all the more excited to get there.
How to book a holiday at the SBH Monica Beach Resort
Coming in at £2,307 in February half term 2020, this break at SBH Monica Beach isn’t the cheapest, but it’s great for those who want a relaxing holiday away from the usual busy resorts.
To book a holiday at SBH Monica Beach go to: www.jet2holidays.com/canary-islands/fuerteventura/costa-calma/sbh-monica-beach
For more information on Birmingham Airport’s DPNA service click here: www.birminghamairport.co.uk/at-the-airport/terminal-facilities/special-assistance/