Malaga airport had been stuffy and loud as we made our way through passport control and on to baggage claim. The excitement of being on holiday, combined with unspent energy and autism meant Sawyer began to sensory-seek as soon as we stepped off the plane. Charging down the hallways closed-eyed and spinning, he narrowly missed bumping in to several people as we sped along after him calling out constant reminders to slow down and look where he was going. I knew that he was unlikely to be able to calm down until we got to our hire-car and cranked up the air-con, so imagine my horror when the Avis car rental queue was approximately half a mile long. My own anxieties were pulsing through my body as I stood waiting to be served. What if he were to go missing in a foreign airport? Where would he go? What would I do? I hurried the collection procedures as much as I could as Sawyer span around in circles behind me, periodically appearing to jump up and hang from my sister’s waist.
Relief washed over me as we drove along the coastline, cool air blasting through the car, and the children now relatively relaxed in the seats behind. The journey seemed to go quickly, and as we made our way up the final mountain to our villa, I could feel the anxieties and stress leaving my body inch by inch, minute by minute. I smiled as we drove around familiar bends and past familiar buildings and views. We were almost there. I was almost home.
I am lucky enough to have access to this amazing villa because it belongs to an amazing, and very good friend of mine. In short, the place is perfect. The house itself is pure luxury (complete with a custom-made poolside bar, I kid you not), and if that doesn’t tickle your fancy then the views most certainly will. Every time I am there I can hardly believe my luck, as I look out beyond the pool at the mountains, beach, ocean and castle. What’s that you say? A castle? Yes. An actual castle. It is a strange feeling to know that you were never supposed to belong somewhere, and yet at the same time feel so, so much like you belong. And that you might be the luckiest bitch alive.
Before we had children, Lloyd and I would go on budget all-inclusive holidays and spend the week drinking beer out of plastic cups. We would walk for miles in the heat along the beach, and when we returned to the hotel it wasn’t a problem if the pool area was busy, or if the restaurant was crowded and noisy. A couple of years ago we tried to recreate one of those holidays with both children in tow, and to be frank, it just didn’t work. And it certainly didn’t feel like a holiday. The pool area was too busy to relax around and so we spent a lot of our time walking to the beach in the heat, both children sweaty and agitated. In the evenings the outdoor bar area was crowded and hot, and of course the children both wanted to run off to play in the adjoining play park. Most parents relish the idea of a bar-side play area for children, but for us it was an added drama as Sawyer ran in front of swings, fell off apparatus, and ran out of the park without a thought for where we had been sitting when he had last seen us. He was hot, erratic, confused and overwhelmed. After the first couple of nights, Lloyd and I gave in, and found ourselves trapped outside on our balcony night after night, staring at ugly buildings as the children laid in the cool hotel room watching films.
On a day to day basis we work hard to help Sawyer overcome difficult situations and cope with unusual places. Being careful not to add to his anxieties we try to encourage him to step out of his comfort zone a little, and help guide him in to a more typical way of life. We take him to children’s parties even when we know he will probably want to leave 10 minutes after we arrive. We take him to soft-play with his sister, even though it is often too much for him after 15 minutes, at which point it is time for ear defenders and a cuddle in the corner (bloody expensive and noisy cuddle, I might add). It is a daily battle to find balance between making allowances for autism, and letting it run our lives. It is an exhausting battle, but certainly one worth fighting. Usually.
Holidays are supposed to be a break from everyday life. A change from housework and the mundane – an escape from normal life. But autism doesn’t take the hint. It doesn’t stay behind to feed your cat and water your plants, it tags along with you, dragging with it all the usual baggage. I didn’t want to spend my entire holiday chiselling Sawyer’s autism in the way I usually do, and so instead we mostly just did whatever made life easiest for Sawyer – and in turn the rest of us. He did suffer a couple of sensory meltdowns while we were away, but on the whole he spent his days fltting between splashing around in the pool and playing computer games under the air-con in the living room. Simple things like knowing where the fridge was, and having freedom to wander around the house and by the pool-side made an immense difference to Sawyer’s anxiety levels on holiday. The long, lazy, peaceful afternoons helped to keep him calm, and the fact that the villa has all mod-cons meant he didn’t feel too far removed from the comforts of his life at home.
I’ve always known that we are incredibly lucky to be able to stay somewhere so amazing, and tranquil. But what I hadn’t realised is that Villa Romero doesn’t just give us sunshine, amazing views and luxury accommodation – it gives us a holiday that even autism can learn to enjoy. It gives our son the chance to step outside his comfort zone and try new things without being asked. It gives Sawyer the opportunity to enjoy a holiday in (almost) the same way the rest of us can. It gives him a chance to feel normal.
Even if he doesn’t really understand what that means yet.