Navigating Puberty and Autism: A Family’s Holiday Experience

Everybody loves a holiday; it’s a chance to relax, absorb new culture, and enjoy activities you don’t normally do. Well, not for everyone.

We have always taken a yearly holiday as a family, and in general, had a good time. When the girls were really young, we always visited my Mum’s house in Anglesey, Wales, for the summer break. This year, however, something changed: our autistic girl has become a teenager, and puberty has struck. This one little word—PUBERTY—brings a whole new dimension to the annual family holiday.

Before our daughter became a teenager, we would prepare for a holiday by asking what each person wanted, making a list, choosing a country, choosing the date, and then looking for a location that would allow us to do almost everything on the list. We narrowed the accommodation down to three choices, and the most preferred was chosen. Predominantly, we stayed on campsites, either in a tent or in campsite accommodation. About three years ago, I said I am not going in a tent anymore; I just don’t want to. Since then, we have usually stayed in campsite accommodation.

Our last holiday in Italy was good but way too hot. Thankfully, we had air conditioning. The campsite had facilities, activities, and a beautiful beach, all within easy walking distance. Our daughter was reasonably okay with this holiday, aside from the heat. Both children said they were getting too old for campsites and would like to go on holiday when it’s not 35–40 degrees.

This year, we visited Spain in May when the temperatures are more manageable. We went through the same process, getting everyone’s input. When it came to accommodation, we selected a villa in a quiet location; everyone was consulted and agreed to this decision. Everyone had their own bedroom, space. Prior to going on the holiday, we went through the traveling process with Amelia. We looked at pictures of the villa, the local area, and activity locations to help her understand what would happen and make her more comfortable with her surroundings. Having seen them in pictures, she would be more familiar with them.

This, along with one day of downtime in the accommodation on arrival, would have been enough for Amelia not to have a meltdown. That was pre-puberty.

Before I tell you what happened, I have been recently reading a book by Fern Brady, Strong Female Character.

This lady was diagnosed later in life as autistic but has, for her whole life, felt the impact of autism. In the early part of the book, Fern says that her family stopped taking her on holiday because, as they put it, she “ruined everything.” Towards the end of the book, Fern says that she does actually go on holiday with her long-term partner, but she spends the weeks before going through various scenarios: what could happen, what actions should be taken, where the nearest emergency hospital is. After all this, nothing ever happens, but that process enables Fern to reduce her anxiety and prevent a meltdown. A message to Fern: thank you for writing a book with such honesty and insight; it has helped me understand better, and I am sure your book will help many more people in ways you can never imagine.

Back to our holiday. Amelia stayed in her room for four days and would not come out. Essentially, all the familiarization we did was not enough because puberty has hit. Her sensory overload at the moment is much more acute. During the four-day room shut-in, she was actively doing some really good digital drawings and spending a huge amount of time online.

No, this did not ruin our holiday. We realized what had happened, though we did not quite understand why until I read Fern’s book. We adapted.

For the first two days, we allowed her to stay in the room and eat there. We generally always have an evening off tech and wind down for bedtime. We find this keeps her on a regular schedule of sleeping and eating, which puts her in better shape for the coming day.

On day two, we told her that from day three, she would be expected to sit with the family at mealtimes. During that day, we had a conversation about how she felt and why she thought this was happening. The upshot of that conversation was that her anxiety was too much for her to process. For her, the new place, sounds, and atmosphere were sensory overload. Her comment was, “I have so much else going on in my body, this is just too much.” With all the puberty hormones running around in her body, her anxiety levels are already high, and she is just about managing to keep them under control and not meltdown. Adding a whole other layer of anxiety was not working, and the best thing for her was to control her environment and stay in her room for four days.

After day four, she began to acclimatize to the area, and we started to take short trips with her. We did activities like electric biking, downhill biking, visiting a city, tree climbing, visiting local markets, and going to the beach. These did not all go perfectly; we adapted where needed. During the city visit, Amelia wanted to visit the shops but was also very anxious. So, we spent about two hours in the shopping area. My husband then took her to the quiet park area for an ice cream while I continued shopping with our 16-year-old, shop-till-you-drop daughter. We anticipated this, so we had looked for a nearby park space beforehand.

During the city visit, Amelia held my hand. For her, holding my or my husband’s hand in a busy area helps her manage her anxiety levels. We had a conversation which went: Amelia: “Mum, am I not too old to hold your hand?” Mum: “No, not at all. Why are you asking?” Amelia: “Well, there are other children the same age as me not holding their parents’ hands.” Mum: “Okay, yes there are. But why is that a problem?” Amelia: “Well, will people not think I am being childish?” Mum: “Maybe they might, but what business is it of theirs?” Mum: “You hold my hand because it helps you manage your anxiety in a busy area. It works for you and allows you to enjoy shopping.” Amelia: “I did not think you knew why I held your hand.” Mum: “It’s amazing what Mums know!”

It is not that your autistic teenager does not want to go on holiday and experience new things. At this point in life, it’s just too much for them.

Amelia is very aware of the impact she has on family life and sometimes feels very guilty about this, but it is not her fault; it’s the way she is wired, and we know this. An autistic teenager can be very aware and feel they are negatively impacting the family. The guilt they feel further increases their anxiety, making the meltdown all the more intense. As all parents know, we need to continually adapt to better support our child. It is not easy, and we do not always get it right. There is no playbook.

What is our solution?

After much discussion, we decided not to have a large family holiday next year. Instead, we will find activities for Amelia to do throughout the holidays and may have one or two short beach breaks. My husband and I will have one or two city breaks, places where we would never take the kids because they would be bored. Our 16-year-old will do some of the activities with Amelia but has also informed us that she will be going on holiday with friends next year. However, that statement may change when she realizes how much that will cost!

We do believe Amelia will eventually go on holidays again, but it will be on her terms, and we fully support that. Remember, this is our solution; not every solution will be the same.

Happy Holidays.

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