“We’re all going on a (autistic) summer holiday…”;





31874548As an adult I have always found the concept of ‘holidaying’ a bit strange, maybe it is because the whole point of a holiday is to get away and relax, and all I see is a stressful airport, lots of new people and places and several meltdowns along the way. I have some great memories of my childhood holidays in England with my parents and two older brothers, significantly more travel sickness memories between the three of us in the back of the car I should add, but that was really our only concern at that age. I can now empathise with how stressful going on holiday must have been for my parents and I cannot understand why they did not just forgo them for 18 years. Had they done so then they would have saved us from the infamous string factory in Cheddar Gorge, which in a moment of desperation my mum swept us into to cure our boredom and shelter us all from the torrential storm happening outside. Holidays have really only become a stress for me as I have gotten older and my routine has become less and less flexible and my inability to plan anything successfully has emerged as a significant handicap; last year’s surprise weekend trip to a B&B named after its vast array of craft materials for my partner’s birthday was a real low point.  Despite this I do quite like going to new places and being away from home, it is so easy to get stuck in a rut that seems unbreakable, and I always find a holiday puts everything into perspective and lets me start a fresh on my return; or more likely I enjoy the immense relief of returning home so much those stresses seem insignificant. I now also have the benefit of a partner who does her absolute best to ensure it all runs smoothly and I am not left in charge of anything too important. So two years into our relationship, and lots of small city breaks later, we decided to give a proper sun, sea and sand holiday and whirl, which is the main topic of this blog post. Two years is actually a lie because we decided to do this a year previously, but unfortunately I was inflicted with a kidney stone a week before our departure and spent the month in and out of A&E giving birth instead (giving birth is an understatement if anything).

So, an extortionately high priced health insurance policy later and we were all set to go to Crete. Having only been on one very short plane journey a year earlier to Amsterdam, naturally my main concern was surviving the flight; in my head the chances of survival were about 50/50, and what with being in the air for 4 hours this time those chances were being significantly reduced. The huge advantage to my catastrophic belief in my imminent death was that I did not need to waste any time or energy on worrying about what the other possible stresses might be should I survive. It also meant I was the most prepared anyone could physically be for a holiday. I packed a month before and unpacked and repacked several times. I can only liken this to when you are about to start back at school after summer and you have compiled all your exciting new stationary, clothing and bags – this might be something only relevant to myself. Obviously this also meant I had packed for every eventually; sun, rain, blisters, snow storm, avian flu, all the usual really.  I had also begun practising mentalization, a skill which until this point I had flippantly discarded as useless self-help mumbo jumbo, but desperate times call for desperate measures. The task was to try and think outside my internal thoughts and feelings and experience the things around me. Well I find it quite hard to recognise these differences anyway, let alone separate them; in consciously trying to experience things externally I was doing a lot of internal thinking, a very vicious circle.  I started by taking walks with my dog where I would be more distracted than sitting at home mentalizing my bookcase, I tried to pick out the tallest leaf on trees and counting the sounds I could hear. It was hard work but also quite refreshing. I also took to yoga in the lead up, which if anything has made me less physically flexible than I was to start with but my breathing control and patience is now superb; obviously this was lazy video yoga as opposed to a proper class, which probably meant I was doing it all wrong. I took the days leading up to the holiday off work, cut out any stressful social activities, basically I became a complete hermit; you would have thought I was in training for an Olympic event rather than a fun sea and sand getaway. This method of stress reduction has been described to me as a pond, which fills up with each added stressor until it spills over and floods. I do not like this analogy because ponds are filled with water, not floating abstract metaphors of stress, however you get the drift.

I made it to the airport after a 3am wakeup, which I thought would add to my anxiety but it turned out I was too tired to process anything other than breathing and walking. I had armed with me a travel ‘distress box’. The idea of these are that you fill it with things that cover your five senses; something you like to taste, a smell you really like, a picture you find relaxing to look at, music you enjoy listening too, and finally a texture you like to feel. With limited baggage allowance and strict prohibitions on liquids mine was a little makeshift. In my pocket I put a wad of cotton wool with nice smelling perfume on it; a great idea but in hindsight this made me look quite dodgy and I ended up pretending to blow my nose on it to make it look more normal. I forgot about the taste part so put some Lucozade sweets in instead, I figured if anything they will at least keep me buzzing. I had my iPhone on me anyway so that had pictures and music on it, and then finally my most helpful vice was my silky Milky Mouse toy; technically he has a bag inside him (do not ask, Disney Land’s most useless and impractical souvenir), so I did not look too special needs scratching a cuddly toy for the entire flight. Note to self I must invest in a bigger box for everyday use at some point.

Three paragraphs in and I am only just discussing the actual holiday, I feel your pain but in some ways this seems like the easiest part of the whole experience. I have gotten use to city breaks, I quite enjoy the anonymity of somewhere big and busy, it is sensory overload hell but it all seems to happen so quickly and fast you do not have time to stop and crash. This holiday was a different experience for me altogether. Slow and tranquil, but also enough time to flip out over the change in routine and unfamiliarity. There were new unwritten rules to learn, and so many polite conversations with vaguely familiar people you would never get to know properly, but who demanded a lot of social resources. My partner and I are great at feeding off each other and making each other feel comfortable anyway. The food buffet presented a whole new experience for me, which was quite surreal. Unwritten rules about buffet etiquette, which turned out just to be a middle class free for all. Surprisingly a language barrier was not an issue. It is often said that those with Asperger’s get along great in foreign countries, many moving abroad, because their social hindrances are less noticeable when they do not speak the language. I very patiently managed to describe what Cranberry juice was to the Greek waitress, who promptly delivered me a pineapple juice instead. I also eagerly went along with all the local touts showing me their wares, whilst my partner looked on in dismay. Things which at home in the UK would see me turning red and shy with embarrassment.

Despite the amount of anxiety did I enjoy the holiday and would I go again? Definitely, and not just because I am a masochist and a martyr. I often feel like a child experiencing things for the first time, stuff which has taken me ten years longer to learn than my peers, and at an age to appreciate it new experiences are often exhilarating. I like to document this with my camera, I take those images and experiences away in my photographs and return to them time and time again afterwards, slowly absorbing everything in piece by piece. I went snorkelling for the first time, despite being terrified of the waves and forgetting to breath, I only saw two very pale looking fish but I was so proud of myself for doing it this did not seem to matter. I rode on the back of a scooter for the first time, a petrifying experiencing to begin with after dropping the scooter into a plant point and crushing my arm whilst stationary, but once put on the back and driven around instead it was huge amounts of quite calming fun.

My main piece of advice for a successful trip is just to plan, plan, plan; you can never plan enough, from picking your best flight times to the size and location of the hotel. However, as soon as the travelling starts let go and trust you have prepared thoroughly and are safe. For more advice visit the National Autism Society’s webpage.

A massive special thanks to my partner for opening my eyes and pushing me out of my shell.  Now back to work, reality, and routine, and hopefully a blog post on my ever increasing list of self-help techniques in the not too distant future.

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