In a parallel universe, I’ve just come home from a holiday in the sun, where I drank ice cold beer and dined on garlic prawns by the seafront.
I took a nap every afternoon, after a morning sunbathing by the pool, and sipped cocktails on the balcony in the evening.
I read books and bartered with the locals in backstreet markets.
Actually, I did none of this.
I’ve just got home from a week in Wales. The beach was wet and windy, we ate fish and chips and I instinctively felt that bartering with the checkout man in Tesco was not socially acceptable…
Our 2017 break was our fifth trip to Wales in as many years. And we loved it.
Before our children were born, I hadn’t envisaged going to Wales every year. I always thought I would take country breaks in the UK (when I was about 90).
But I imagined our family holidays would be taken abroad – probably the Canary or Balearic islands, where I holidayed as a child.
But life has a habit of getting in the way of plans, and when it became apparent that our younger son was on the autistic spectrum, we had already experienced some problematic UK holidays with him, so travelling abroad was out of the question.
By the time he was 4 and in mainstream school, we were in no doubt that he was autistic. It would be another year before we received the formal diagnosis, but the first time we took him to Wales we at least knew that we were away with our autistic (not naughty, difficult, delayed, temperamental) child.
They say knowledge is power, but we weren’t knowledgeable and we certainly weren’t powerful.
It’s one thing to know that your child is probably autistic, but we had no idea what this thing called autism actually meant and we had no idea how to plan around this mysterious condition on holiday.
So our first trip to Wales in 2013 was nearly as disastrous as all our previous holidays.
We made several mistakes, for example showing him pictures of the swimming pool’s waterslide that he subsequently wasn’t allowed to go on (height restrictions) but not preparing him that the strange, long, white thing called a caravan was actually very nice inside (he agreed, once we had actually coaxed him in there).
But despite the fact that I spent much of that break crying in the caravan, while he stayed in one safe place playing with his Nintendo DS, I was struck by the sheer beauty of the place.
For most of the week his anxiety levels were sky high, but something about the Welsh seaside seemed to bring out the best in him.
The beaches were vast and wide, places where you would walk your dog or ride a horse – no pier, no ice cream vans, no novelty shops or beachside cafes. Just sand and sea.
In short, no distractions. Perfect for an autistic child.
Yes, it was wet. Yes, it was windy.
But as our son ran along that beach, the loud shouts and echolalia that attract so many stares in everyday life were like whispers against the crash of waves and the howling wind.
He could be as noisy as he liked. There was hardly anybody around and those that were couldn’t hear him anyway. Other autism parents will understand how liberating that was for us. I’m all for autism awareness, but sometimes I just want to take my son out without being stared at. Our experience on that Welsh beach showed me how to achieve that.
I knew that we had finally got one thing right. We needed to change pretty much everything else that we did on holiday, but Wales was the right destination for us.
So, a year later, 2014, I booked a week in a country cottage in the area of Dunvant, near the Gower peninsular.
It was a huge 4 bedroom property nestled in several acres of land.
Since our last holiday, we had received our son’s formal diagnosis of autism, with a bonus diagnosis of dyspraxia and learning difficulties thrown in for good measure.
We’d also secured a Statement of Educational Needs and a place in a special school, starting the following September.
During this stressful time, my dad had died of dementia, following a 5 year battle with the disease.
Life had dealt me some pretty hefty blows and I wanted to disappear, far away from home; see nobody and talk to nobody, apart from my little family.
And that’s why I chose the cottage in Dunvant. I knew we would be isolated. And in 2013 I wanted to be.
It was for me.
But we also discovered that cottage holidays were right for our son.
As soon as we arrived in Dunvant, both our sons settled in straight away. They were 6 and 9, so unimpressed by the size and status of the place (unlike us, we ran round shrieking, “Oh my god!”)
But there was something about this older, very solid and tranquil property that seemed to make our younger son feel secure.
I suspect it’s a sensory thing – maybe older properties absorb sound better – whatever the reason, he relaxed and consequently, so did we.
For our little son, blissfully unaware of his diagnosis, the arrival of the Tesco delivery van, bringing all his familiar foods and treats, was the icing on the cake!
In that huge garden, I could sip my coffee and watch him without having to smile at a stranger and explain the thing I shouldn’t have to explain: “He’s autistic”
And once again, the unspoilt beauty of the Welsh beaches and their calming effect on him confirmed that Wales was rapidly becoming our place.
We had a lovely, relaxing time, enjoying the scenery as we drove to Oxwich Bay, listening to the Stereophonics (we now have to listen to them every time we go away, but only when we go away).
Around this time, Rhosilli bay in the Gower was awarded UK’s best beach (and 9th world).
Our secret was out! The Gower was officially the best place in the Universe and suddenly everyone was going there.
We have a tendency to book late, so the next couple of years we stayed in a converted farm in the less famous village of Brook, in Camarthenshire.
We were just a short drive from Pendine sands, a gorgeous 7 miles stretch of sandy beach.
We encountered some difficulties on the first trip, but tried again a year or so later with better results. You can read about this in a blog I wrote for the charity Ambitious About Autism last year.
Here’s a link to that article: Sun, sea, cows and autism
That brings us to now, 2017.
Having had two successful visits to the barn in Brook, we had a dilemma. Did we play it safe and go there again or try somewhere different?
Professionals and various public figures will always stress how important it is to push your child with autism out of their comfort zone (easy for them to say!)
As a parent – and someone who recognises that nobody actually really knows what this thing called autism is – I agree, up to a point.
But yet… routine, stability, reassurance – these are what our son needs. And when he doesn’t get them, we all suffer.
As parents, we need to encourage him, yes. But we also need to be well enough, mentally and physically to care for him.
And sometimes the easier option is the happier option.
So it was very tempting to take a third trip to the barn in Brook. It was a lovely property and we all felt happy there. A low risk option if you like.
I felt, however, that it was unwise for our son to get too used to the same property.
So, we booked a new cottage and prepared him carefully for the holiday, something that we’ve got better at over the years.
He wasn’t happy at the thought initially:
“I want to go to the old cottage. The new cottage is garbage!” he cried.
We were able to overcome his resistance with a few promises:
- We would still cross the Severn Bridge
- We would book tickets for The Blue Lagoon, a waterpark in Bluestone he’s been to several times
- Tesco would deliver his favourite foods to our door
- He could still get his favourite Happy Meal from McDonalds
- We would take him to the seaside
- The cottage had Wifi (risky this one, as you’re never sure until you get there but it’s a major bargaining tool)
I prepared a number of social stories, schedules and pictures to help prepare him for the trip ahead (which took 6 hours on the day).
This year’s cottage, situated in Tiers Cross (a rural area near Haverfordwest), was similar to the one we visited in Dunvant back in 2014.
The property and grounds were smaller, but it was still a spacious, 4 bedroom cottage in a quiet location. There were no neighbours – just a few cows in the next field and a family of Pipistrelle bats!
He loved it. Especially the roll-top bath with built-in Jacuzzi:
“It’s making a FART noise” he said blissfully.
He felt safe there. And so did we.
Safe from anxiety, prying eyes and the judgement of other holidaymakers who live in blissful ignorance of the difficult situations families like ours are faced with every day.
It’s fair to say our holidays to Wales are unusual. We have to micro-manage them.
And while other tourists may be researching the local history, restaurants and scenery, our priorities are more basic: McDonald’s, Tescos and accessible seaside, in our case meaning not too many distractions and nearby parking.
Despite having visited Wales several times now, I’ve probably only spoken to a handful of Welsh people!
But the Tesco delivery man, McDonald’s drive through assistant and Blue Lagoon receptionists were all very lovely, friendly people.
So as far as I’m concerned, I’m qualified to brand Wales the friendliest destination on earth!
We spend a lot more time in our cottage than the average traveller, so luxury and peace/tranquillity are important to us. Our son’s needs come first, but it’s our holiday too. We work hard and we want to relax, just like any other family.
Our days out have to be planned, timed and spaced out (our son was bouncing off the walls, shouting and displaying high anxiety symptoms for several hours after our successful Blue Lagoon visit).
In the past we’ve made the mistake of not giving him the time and space to process exciting experiences, resulting in meltdowns which are horrid for him and us.
But there are laughs and memories are made.
I may have been freezing while holding the bags on Newgale sands this year, but the sight of my two boys having a blast in the sea made it worthwhile.
And nobody in the queue at the ice-cream van seemed to mind a little lad wearing his mum’s towelling robe introducing himself.
The only fear I had this year was for my older son, who is now 13.
He’s reaching that age where family holidays may be a bit boring, especially as ours come with so many restrictions, and I was concerned that he was fed up.
But he was totally chilled. He loved it. Despite not having the holidays abroad that I had anticipated taking him on, he loves Wales.
A few more years and the world will be his oyster.
He may have had to wait a little longer to discover it than some of his friends, but I’ve no doubt he’ll take advantage of every travelling opportunity that comes his way when he’s old enough to do it independently.
Maybe he’ll appreciate it even more!
And our younger son? I’m not sure right now how travelling abroad, and by this I mean flying, would benefit him. Hopefully one day, but it will have to about him, not us. I think we will know when and if the time is right for that to happen.
For now, I think Wales is just fine for him. It’s become something of a tradition. And we all love it.
On our last day, he didn’t want to come home:
“The cottage wants to keep us,” he said solemnly.
Once again, we’d managed a successful trip and, although it was touch and go at times, he didn’t have a single meltdown.
Next time we might look for a property in Swansea, so there’s a bit more life on our doorstep for our 13 year old, but within easy driving distance of the gorgeous Gower beaches.
Feel free to make recommendations!
With thanks to Pixabay for Welsh flag and Gower coastline images.