Finally, we travelled trauma-free with an autistic child
After years of trauma it was a joy to find a resort where our son, who is on the autism spectrum, felt at ease
Our family holidays reached a low point when, at a Florida resort, our son Henry could only be persuaded to leave the room wearing ear defenders and sunglasses. We had tried hard to make the trip work but, overwhelmed by the busy pool areas and constant music, this was his way of blocking everything out.
Even the feel of sand at the glorious beach distressed him and it was heartbreaking to see him so unhappy. His repeated requests to go home made us swear never to put him in that situation again.
Holidays should be a joy, but travelling with a child on the autistic spectrum is at best challenging and at worst a nightmare. They can feel anxious about everything, from the general unknown to queues, delays, accommodation, new food, new people and even the weather. Previous holiday disappointments left us feeling like giving up, but at least we knew we were not alone. About 700,000 people have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in Britain and it is unfair that families like ours should be made to forgo a much-needed break.
When tour operators promise the Earth, why should it be so hard to find one who understands our needs?
When we heard that Beaches Resorts (part of Sandals) offered provision for children with autism, it was a potential game changer. Of the three all-inclusive resorts available, two were in Jamaica, somewhere my family (me, my husband, Nigel, and our sons, Henry, 12, and Oscar, nine) had long wanted to visit. We picked the Ocho Rios resort because it seemed to offer everything we wanted in terms of facilities, including an on-site water park, while also being a manageable size.
A few weeks before travelling we received a questionnaire designed to help the hotel best meet Henry’s needs. After years of feeling like an outlier, this acknowledgement made me feel an enormous sense of relief. After a relatively smooth journey (luckily, Henry is comfortable with flying) we arrived at our gorgeous beachfront suite. To help prepare for the trip, we had shown Henry videos of the hotel beforehand, so sleep came easily for everyone that night. The next morning, Henry took to the buffet breakfast system right away and was confident enough to leave us and get his own food – a real breakthrough. Like many children with ASD, he is a very restrictive eater, but the range in the Beaches restaurants was extensive and he even tried some new foods.
The resort is super-organised, which was great, as order and routine helps people with autism control their environment. A complimentary concierge service helped us create an itinerary through a weekly planner and made all our bookings to ensure there were no disappointments, with which Henry finds it hard to cope. Beaches also produces a daily resort newspaper, a huge benefit, because it meant Henry could know exactly what was happening and we could avoid particularly busy or noisy areas.
Both our sons loved the huge range of activities. Henry particularly enjoyed snorkelling, saying he liked the peaceful feeling of being with the fish and part of the sea. Like many children with ASD, he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), meaning he is easily distracted and bores quickly. This can be tricky, since his autism also makes him anxious in new environments and with new people. These behaviours have thrown staff at most kids’ clubs we’ve visited, making them unusable. But the Beaches camps (all complimentary) are all certified autism centres via The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), which ensures that staff have the knowledge, temperament, skills and expertise to cater to all children.
The resort also has a partnership with Sesame Street, and one of its costumed characters is a girl with autism, called Julia, who leads art classes.
One of Henry’s biggest challenges is that he is incredibly socially anxious, so we paired him with one of Beaches’ specially trained, one-to-one “buddies” (at $8 an hour). Dhalyan took everything in her stride and was completely unflappable. Henry immediately relaxed in her company, allowing him to explore some of the facilities he was too nervous to go to on his own. Dhalyan helped Henry build confidence and he told us he felt understood and liked. I cannot tell you what a revelation that was for us as parents: he was very proud of himself and actively set himself new challenges, on the last day experiencing a sense of freedom after visiting the water park with his brother and ordering himself a drink from the all-inclusive, swim-up bar.
I feel quite emotional thinking back to it, but the time my husband and I spent reading or walking along the beach, knowing Henry was happy, was blissful. His progress also let his brother enjoy some of his favoured activities without being a carer.
Our time in Jamaica reminded us that a holiday should be about relaxing and trying new things with loved ones. I hope more resorts recognise that not all families are the same. As understanding of autism grows, surely other companies will see that it is worth their while to offer services for families like us. After all, everyone deserves a holiday.
Top tips for travelling with autistic kids
• At the airport, don’t be afraid to tell staff that your child has ASD and use priority queues. Get a letter from your healthcare professional outlining your child’s needs and be ready to present it when required. This is also useful if you travel to any of the major theme parks;
• For a cost, an airport’s executive lounges offer a quiet place to relax and space for your child to decompress away from all the bustle. Otherwise, try to sit by a window;
• Consider upgrading to a private transfer if your child prefers their own space after a long flight;
• Request a room in a quieter part of the hotel or resort. Flats and villas will mean you can avoid restaurants;
• Familiarise your child with your destination and accommodation through pictures or videos ahead of time. Once at the resort, take advantage of orientation tours and make a daily plan of activities;
• Bring familiar toys and stick to routines you have at home that are do-able on holiday (such as bath time and bedtime);
• Cut yourselves some slack. The whole family needs a holiday and it’s unlikely that anyone will perish if the children eat spaghetti bolognese every day for two weeks.
Why some children fear travel
Children with autism sometimes behave in ways that untrained people find strange or confusing. The more staff and companies understand about autism, the more their customers can relax and enjoy their holiday. However, it’s important to know that every child is different.
• Making small adjustments (such as locating a quiet room, letting parents know schedule changes in advance) and checking in with parents regularly can prevent difficulties.
• Many parents say dealing with other people’s attitudes is their biggest challenge when they are away. Members of the public may complain or make hurtful comments about the child’s behaviour, and judge it as “naughty”. Staff can make a big difference by showing that they understand, and by supporting parents.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)