What I learned on my first vacation with my autistic son

What I learned on my first vacation with my autistic son

family vacation in greece, summer vacation, families with autism

family vacation in greece, summer vacation, families with autism

“I don’t want that person to sit next to me. He’s a stranger. Tell him to sit somewhere else. Why aren’t they putting our bags? Why is it taking so long? Why is that man behind me? is chewing so loud? How long in minutes will we be on the plane and how many hours will we spend in Greece?”

As my 10-year-old son bombarded me with questions as we sat on the runway waiting for our plane to take off, I felt my body tense with trepidation. Perhaps this, our first holiday abroad since his autism diagnosis in 2019, was a mistake.

For our son Eddie, routine, familiarity and knowing what to expect are key to managing the day to day. A change in environment, climate, food, pace, and people are, for a high-functioning autistic child, a serious challenge. It can cause panic, anxiety, and ultimately, breakdowns – screaming, crying, and sometimes lashing out.

Everything is extreme with Eddie, from his reactions and his heightened senses to the way he argues with his brothers, and he can quickly shift from sheer joy to unbridled rage.

That’s why we haven’t tried going abroad since he was first diagnosed three years ago.

The Peligoni Club on the Greek island of Zakynthos

The Peligoni Club on the Greek island of Zakynthos

But as time went on, the pull of a holiday in the sun grew stronger for my husband and I, and Eddie’s two ‘neurotypical’ brothers – Charlie, 13 and Jemima, eight – and this summer, we knew it was finally time to dive.

We prepared as best we could, laying the foundations by showing Eddie pictures of the villa we were staying in, the beach club we were going to, and making sure he had his own room to retire to while we were there.

We also contacted the airport and airline in advance (after having flashbacks of a major meltdown he had in line at the airport returning from France where he threw himself to the ground and refused to move as a crowd of disapproving onlookers gathered behind us) . They advised us to make sure he was wearing a sunflower lanyard to indicate he has an invisible disability and explained that there was a quiet room at the airport where we could take him if the need arose.

We chose the Peligoni Club on the Greek island of Zakynthos for its small size and relaxed, private atmosphere – and also because it offered the best of both worlds: a quiet village, plus a nearby hub with plenty to keep the other two busy, including water sports and, hallelujah, a kids’ club.

Trying to find something that would work for the five of us as a family was tricky, but the staff were incredibly helpful from the get-go, even providing the Lego box I had requested upon arrival to help Eddie self-regulate.

Even so, it was a journey of ups and downs – more challenging and complex than I could have ever anticipated.

holidays in Zakynthos

holidays in Zakynthos

For starters, Eddie has no filter, so I’m never sure what he’s going to say or do. Moaning “this is hell, I HATE this place, in a busy shop we visited in Zakynthos (which, in hindsight, we probably should have avoided, but we cautiously stomped on after succumbing to his brothers’ nagging power) raised a few eyebrows, and I ended up taking him out for ice cream while his brother and sister flipped through the Star Wars inflatables.

Eddie also needs time to adjust to new places, which meant that – despite our best efforts to persuade – he didn’t want to take the family waterskiing trip we had scheduled for our second day. Instead, my husband Dom ended up taking our oldest son, while I took Eddie and his sister to the clubhouse pool.

Everything was fine, and soon I started talking to another mother, who had a daughter about Eddie’s age – when suddenly, to my horror, Eddie started yelling a curse in front of all the other families. I lured him silently with the promise of a milkshake, but the damage was done, and the mother I was talking to avoided me for the rest of the week. I should have mentioned right away that my son was autistic, and telling her after the fact sounded like an apology, so I swallowed my pride and, not for the first time, tried not to let the judgment bother me.

But with all the challenges came the wonderful. We met some lovely and kind people – including Anouska Shearer, head of guest relations at Peligoni, who went out of her way to make us feel comfortable, even arranging for a babysitter one night after Eddie went to bed – and a few other great families. at the club’s ‘party night’, including two young teachers and the parents of a boy with ADHD, who wanted to hear all about Eddie.

paddleboarding, vacation in greece

paddleboarding, vacation in greece

Another highlight was the boat trip we took on the famous Odyssey. It was just the five of us, plus a lovely couple, the captain, James, his partner and first mate, Carla, and their rescue dog, Ayila. We were initially apprehensive (and hung over – it was the day after the party night) as the last time we tried to take Eddie on a friend’s boat, in Devon, he refused point-blank. But James and Carla were very kind and reassuring to him, and their dog’s attraction sealed the deal.

When it came time to ride, we hadn’t even planned on trying to convince Eddie to try – but he surprised us all. James lowered the anchor so Dom and I could paddle when, to our delight – no doubt because we’d relieved the pressure – Eddie decided to join us. It’s always wonderful to see your kids experience something for the first time, but with Eddie it always means a little more because I know the challenges he has to overcome are so much greater. Watching him jump off the boat brought tears to my eyes, and soon he was paddling the board beside Dom, eyes wide with glee as a school of tuna swam by.

But after such a high peak – so much excitement and sensory overload – came the inevitable low. The next day, Eddie refused to leave the village, saying he was missing his Lego, our dog, and his room at home. Having been on cloud nine the day before and describing our village, Avgi, as heaven, now he just wanted to go home. He spent the day playing in our pool, until we managed to lure him to the food festival, where the churros calmed things down.

However, the experience of traveling with Eddie was overwhelmingly positive – the laid-back vibe in Peligoni worked perfectly, the boat trip was magical, Eddie loved the pool and village and donuts, and Charlie and Jemima loved the Sharkey and George kids club. and making tie-dye t-shirts. We were able to spend some family time under the glorious Greek sun, and I will take that as a victory.

Next time, let’s remember not to book too much, be sure to lower our expectations – and book an extra paddleboard.

What are your top tips for a vacation abroad with family members who have autism? Please share your comments below.

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