The simple word 'holiday' evokes so many positive emotions - happiness, relaxation, contentment and the opportunity to recharge. Time out in a new setting is often just what the 'doctor ordered' especially when the stress of daily life can find us stuck in an exhaustive rut.
For some it's long hours at work, stressful job roles, fast paced lives, not enough quality time with the family. Whatever the reason, a holiday always offers an annual opportunity to press the refresh button on life.
Six years ago my youngest son was diagnosed with autism and in the blink of an eye all things accessed so easily were tragically snatched away. The simple task of booking a family holiday soon became something drifting quickly out of my reach.
Why? Because my child needed routine, preparation understanding and time. I remember he was terrified of buses so I bought a quarterly bus pass and slowly integrated him into this activity. Eventually he became relaxed, familiar and at ease with this mainstream outing. However, I knew this could not be repeated with a flight ticket... I had one chance to get it right with no refund and no exit route thousands of miles' sky high.
Having said that - six years ago my family and I were moving back to the UK from Australia so we had no option but to get onto that plane. It was one of my most horrendous experiences and has left a little scar in all our hearts - the general public, the airport staff, the crew EVERYONE stared, judged, misunderstood and offered little understanding. Because autism is an often an invisible disability you are viewed as an incompetent parent who can't control their child. What they don't understand is that my non-verbal little boy struggled being stuck on a 24 hour plus flight, noisy terminals, seatbelt signs, turbulence, confinement, noise... it was extremely difficult and frightful for him - yet people viewed him as nothing more than a naughty little brat! I remember the head stewardess so eloquently explaining to fellow passengers that children with autism were very naughty children.
In my opinion children, adults and families living with autism are some of the most amazing people walking this Earth. Many live on limited sleep, daily meltdowns, constant worry, daily anxiety, unending battles and when they step out the door they are judged and totally misunderstood. Stress levels and anxiety are through the roof and if anyone deserves a relaxing much deserved break - they do!
If we look at children and adults with autism they have human rights like everyone else. They have the right to be happy, supported, understood and able to access services like everyone else. As a mental disorder, research also points to the positive effects of new experiences, cultures, smells, sounds, tastes and surroundings. Due to the amazing ability of neuroplasticity, pathways are almost given a jump start. Some travellers with ASD have been known to say their first word, try a new food, cope outside of rigid routines whist on holiday. Surely this is a win win - families are offered much needed time out whilst travellers with autism are accessing priceless moments helping to open up their world.
I feel privileged to work with Virgin Atlantic Airways providing advice and training on autism awareness - where I am now able to offer real insight to create change.
I filmed a short video with Virgin last year to help support families considering to travel - the response from parents across the globe were phenomenal and they have begun to be filled with hope and optimism.
Years ago wheelchair accessibility and parking for the disabled was a new concept, however it is now an important and accepted part of our social lifestyle. I believe it is a social responsibility for travel companies, airlines, airports and hotels to review how they support autism and how they can make it a natural part of their service. Autism's prevalence and trajectory is growing at a sharp rate and we need to create change today to support our future generation of tomorrow. This isn't a fluffy quote - this is reality.
In a world constantly trying to promote inclusion we need to demonstrate to adults, children and families living with autism that they can step out of their front door and be welcomed by the world with acceptance, understanding and awareness
As director of Autism Parent Empower I am very proud of the training programmes we run to equip families with skills, strategies and empowerment to face this journey positively.
I am due to board a 10-hour flight with my son and family next week - positive change is possible and I am determined to make this accessible to many more.