Holidaying with autistic children all about planning ahead

By Laurilee McMichael

A tropical family holiday with an autistic child can be successful if you plan ahead, writes Laurilee McMichael.

Seaside activities helped keep nine-year-old Hamish, who has Asperger's syndrome, busy on Fiji's Plantation Island. Photo / Laurilee McMichael
Seaside activities helped keep nine-year-old Hamish, who has Asperger's syndrome, busy on Fiji's Plantation Island. Photo / Laurilee McMichael

The minute the cat went into the box, the cat was out of the bag.

"Why is Skittles in the box?" asked 9-year-old Hamish, eyeing the box suspiciously.

"She's going to the cattery," I answered, hastily stowing the box and its yowling contents in the car.

"Why's she going to the cattery?" he asked, even more suspiciously.

"Because ..." I answered, taking a deep breath and steeling myself.

"Because ... tomorrow we're going to Fiji."

"Arrrrrgh! I don't want to go to Fiji! Arrrrgh!"

And this, with variations, and even a few tears, was what I got for the rest of the day. Reasoning was futile.

"I hate Fiji. Fiji's stupid. Arrrgh ..." And so on, for hours on end.

Hamish, who has Asperger's syndrome and severe ADHD, hates the idea of change and new things. Even thinking about going somewhere different makes him anxious. So much so that my husband Jarrod and I kept the Fiji trip quiet for two months to avoid him becoming stressed about it. We also crossed our fingers and hoped that once there, he'd love it.

With Hamish in mind, we'd carefully planned ahead, because one of the really fun things about Asperger's and autism is that anything unexpected or negative can trigger a screaming meltdown of mammoth proportions, usually guaranteed to attract a crowd of tut-tutting onlookers.

We'd opted for a holiday at family-friendly Plantation Island resort in the Mamanuca Group, offshore from Nadi. The main advantage of Plantation Island for us was familiarity - we'd made a family trip there when Hamish was very young - and we thought it would work for us.

We knew there were comfortable bures, three pools, a kids' club, lots of activities and a hydroslide (ranked most important by our three energetic children). It is only an hour's boat ride from Denarau Island and, from a budget point of view, it was also attractive. Shopping at the on-site mini market meant we could self-cater our breakfasts and lunches - an important consideration when feeding five people.

The next morning Hamish, having accepted that the trip was inevitable, bounced out of bed at 6am and was raring to go.

At Auckland airport, our carefully laid meltdown-avoiding plans almost came unstuck when we couldn't find a toilet without a hand dryer for our hypersensitive boy who can't bear loud noises. Things were threatening to move into meltdown territory when finally a kindly cleaner let him into the parenting room's toilet, which featured paper towels. Phew.

The plane trip was fine, thanks to the kids' entertainment selection, but when we emerged from Nadi airport, our promised transfer to the Novotel was nowhere in sight.

Hamish rapidly became extremely anxious - "Where's our bus? How will we get to our hotel? Will we have to stay in the airport all night?" - while his father and I affected airs of casual nonchalance, assuring him that the bus would arrive any minute (it took 45) while hissing under our breath to each other about "bloody Fiji time".

The next day, after more encounters with Fiji time, we arrived at Plantation Island and, despite rain, the kids were in the pool immediately, where they stayed for the rest of the day.

Hamish was remarkably relaxed, although his Asperger's made an unwelcome appearance at the kids' buffet meal that evening. With the staff looking on in stunned silence, he protested loudly, and at length, about the perfectly reasonable selection - ham, roast potatoes, roast chicken, peas, corn and salad - on offer.

His three-year-old brother thought this was a great game and joined in.

"This tea is stupid! I don't like this tea. Arrrgh ..." Lesson learned.

Every night thereafter we dined outside at Ananda's, the resort's beachside restaurant, which had a children's menu and a small play area on the adjacent sand. There, Hamish could choose between fish and chips, spaghetti bolognaise and other standard kid-friendly fare and, because he felt he had control over what he was eating, he was able to cope.

We were also pleasantly surprised by his reaction to the kids' club. Although we got the predictable, "Arrgh! I don't want to go to kids' club!", he was very taken with the indoor bouncy castle and play area.

In the end, he spent two hours each morning at kids' club quite happily, bouncing a ball and chattering incessantly and probably incomprehensibly about his obsessions (washing machines, hand dryers, the Roald Dahl book Fantastic Mr Fox) to the Fijian babysitter who was minding his younger brother and therefore couldn't get away.

As everyone's heard, Fijians love kids. And Hamish, when he's not having a meltdown or talking about his obsessions, looks and mostly behaves like any other kid. So a Fijian resort, with its mixture of relaxation and activities, all in a controlled environment, was a perfect place.

For Hamish, the resort came with an added bonus - a laundry full of washing machines and dryers, which he visited regularly. He eagerly looked forward to every second day, when he was able to swap cash for two tokens and put the family's dirty clothes through the washers and dryers. A cue for funny looks from the other guests, but Hamish was in seventh heaven.

With everything going well, we fell into a daily routine of swimming, walks, playing at the beach and endless trips to the pool while the kids rode the hydroslide. At the end of the day everyone was worn out and, despite sharing a studio bure, the kids were asleep by 8pm most nights.

But it all came crashing down on day five when we headed to the beach for some snorkelling. Aspies need everything to be perfect so there was hell to pay when we realised Hamish's mask and snorkel had been left behind.

We offered him other sets, but nothing but his would do. There was screaming, shrieking, stamping and shocked onlookers. That meltdown triggered other, smaller meltdowns and it became increasingly difficult to keep Hamish on an even keel.

By day six, we were acknowledging that while fun and definitely successful, for Hamish the holiday had been long enough.

Even so, the next day it was a wrench to leave. The sun shone, the sea glittered and the temperature was well into the mid-20s as we climbed aboard the boat back to Denarau.

Hamish was sorry to go, too.

"I like Fiji," he said as we pulled away from the jetty.

"Can we come back another time?"

HOLIDAYING WITH AUTISTIC CHILDREN

* Plan ahead. Leave as little to chance as possible. People on the autism spectrum hate uncertainty.

* When things don't go as they should, stay calm. If you get stressed, your autistic child will flip out.

* Try to stick to your usual meal and bedtime routines. Check that the resort or hotel has child-friendly or familiar food.

* Airports, unfortunately, mean queues. There's not much you can do about this except allow plenty of time, stay unnaturally calm and accept that if your kid loses the plot, it's not the end of the world.

Laurilee McMichael paid her own way to Fiji.

- NZ Herald

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