Gemma lives with her husband, John, and two children: Billy, age 11, and Isla, almost nine, who has an autism diagnosis. She blogs at Isla’s Voice Our Journey With Autism
When and where did you last go on holiday?
Our last holiday was in October half term although we do have weekends away in between. It was our second holiday abroad and we went to a lovely resort called Cala en’Blanes in Menorca.
What is the best family holiday you’ve been on?
I honestly would struggle to choose. In the UK our favourite holiday is Morecambe. We have stayed at Ocean Edge (Park Dean Resorts) many times. We love the place and try and get every year.
I guess our holiday to Menorca would be the best one we have been on closely followed by Spain the year before because we never thought abroad holidays would be possible. Abroad always seemed like somewhere out of reach given Isla is autistic and has learning disabilities.
Why did it work?
Many reasons. As a family we have never shied away from trying things, new experiences, holidays, days out. If they worked that was amazing and if they didn’t we would chalk it down to experience and try again another time.
I think that being relaxed about it helps your children to feel relaxed about it too.
The holiday was very well planned out. We have lists upon lists so we don’t forget anything from where we want to go to what we need to take.
Organisation very much is the key.
Before even talking to a travel agent I made a list of every little thing we needed :
- Airport that was close by, relatively short flight time, not a long transfer, small resort, near a beach in case hotel was too busy, entertainment at hotel, near a shop in case Isla didn’t like the food, and of course we booked airport assistance beforehand. I even phoned the hotel to ask if they served chicken nuggets every day.
- Airport assistance always helps and is phenomenal not just here but abroad too, in fact the best assistance we had was in menorca. They had literally thought of everything.
- The hotel we chose was brilliant, right next to a beach, in a very small resort that was about to close down for the season so it wasn’t full either. The airport we flew from was close by and the transfer time was short so the kids weren’t stuck on a plane and then stuck on a bus forever. We chose all inclusive because both children’s diets are so very different, islas being quite restrictive because of her sensory issues. There was plenty to keep both kids entertained, the entertainers even asked us if Isla was autistic and made sure she was included in activities and made a fuss of.
- Most importantly we have zero expectations, none! That helps massively if things don’t quite go as planned. By having no expectations we find that everything always exceeds our expectations. We have learnt something from every single holiday we have had and each one gets easier.
How do you decide where to go on holiday?
In the UK for many years we have stuck to Park resorts. We know exactly what we are getting and we know how much both kids love it. It also helps that we can take the dog because both kids love him being around.
Abroad we decide by seeking the advice of a travel agent using the list I’ve described above, they are after all the experts.
Once we’ve been given the names of a few places that fit our needs we research. Trip adviser is an amazing website and you can of course search for key words so I always go to the place we are looking at staying at and type in ‘autism’ and ‘food’ for example to see what, if anything comes up.
What’s the biggest challenge for you on holiday?
The biggest challenge is making sure both children get the most out of our holidays. We absolutely have to tailor holidays to meet Isla’s needs and a lot of our time on holiday is spent making sure that she is happy and safe (she has zero danger awareness). But it’s just as important that Billy gets something out of the holiday too and that he is happy.
Sometimes this has meant we have split up for a short time so one of us can focus on one child and one the other, sometimes this has meant Isla taking part in and trying new things with help from us. Sometimes it’s meant Billy helping Isla learn a new skill such as air hockey, sometimes it’s meant one child having screen time so the other can do what they want to do. We have juggled a lot but as the kids are getting older and we have found our feet we tend to be able to do everything together and just make sure both kids get to do their preferred activities.
What’s the one thing you always pack for a flight?
A fidget bag. Each child gets a clear bag full of things to entertain them. Isla’s for example is full of mini figures, Lego, little puzzles, a colouring book, crayons, sweeties and such like. She loves her bag and carries it everywhere. Even a few days into the holiday she still takes it with her. She does however spend a lot of time on flights lookIng out of the window with her big brother and doesn’t look up until the air hostess brings her crisps.
What’s your top tip for going on a long journey?
If it’s a long car journey our DVD player is a godsend. It keeps the kids entertained for a good while. We also make sure we have a stop to stretch our legs and have a drink or bite to eat, it breaks up the journey.
If it’s a flight, the toys will help immensely and food always helps a lot. I always have tablets and phones fully charged but on the four flights we have had I’ve never had to use them. But they are always there in case there’s a time I do.
What’s your favourite holiday memory?
Sat on the beach watching John and the kids playing in the sea, listening to them laughing, seeing their huge smiling faces with the sun on my face and a tear in my eye behind my sunglasses.
I never thought we would ever get to go abroad as a family and yet there we were. I’ll never forget that utter feeling of happiness and achievement or that moment for as long as I live.
What place is at the top of your bucket list?
We would love to take the kids to New York at a Christmas but we haven’t won the lottery as yet.
I think over the coming years it would be nice to explore Greece a bit more. We haven’t been there since before we had the children and I adored it.
What’s your top travel tip for a family with additional needs who is planning their first holiday?
Ask people what worked for them, if they had an exceptional holiday somewhere and what made it work.
Use recommendations from families in your situation who understand what you need from a holiday.
Then make those lists.
List 1: Everything you want and need from your holiday. I’d use a travel agent first time around rather than a budget website for peace of mind. Don’t book that day, take the hotel info away and do some research.
List 2: Everything you need to take with you. I have a list for each family member and a more general list of things we need.
If your first holiday is in the UK still do the research and phone the place, tell them about your situation and see what they offer in the way of holidays that would suit your needs.
Most of all just enjoy it, you’ve come this far, you’ve done well.