How do you fill the holiday void with an autistic son?
John Williams is a single father and full-time carer for his 10-year-old son, who has autism and cerebral palsy. Both of them dread school holidays but have learned how to manage them, he says, through a process of trial and error.
School. Holidays. Two words that on their own are fine, but together strike fear and horror in to parents throughout the land. For my 10-year-old autistic son, who craves the familiarity and consistency of routine, the lack of sameness, and change of pace that holidays inevitably bring, can make them an even more testing time.
"Please complete the holiday diary to tell us what you did over the Easter period," said a letter he arrived home with on Friday. It turned out to be an exercise book. An exercise book! Forty-two pages.
He's only off for two weeks. What do you want us to have done?
"On Monday we trekked across the Himalayas to discover a new breed of toad before popping over to South America on Tuesday to save the rainforest."
What's wrong with: "We spent the entire fortnight in our pyjamas watching CBeebies, eating all our meals off the lounge floor with our hands"?
But unless you want to be made to feel like you're top of the Bad Parent Class, trips out are the order of the day. We've tried different outings over the years, some with more success than others.
London's Natural History Museum is a place of wonderment and beauty... unless you're an eight-year-old who can't differentiate between reality and make-believe.
For The Boy, as I'm calling him for the purpose of this article, to save his blushes, it's just a big mortuary filled with dead animals, apart from one very much alive, animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex, that nobody sees fit to warn you about. We've only been once.
Libraries are good. They're quiet, often tragically empty places nowadays. The Boy likes their calmness.
The one nearest to us has really high ceilings. So if you stand in the middle of it and scream really loudly when you can't have the same Doctor Who book you've borrowed for the last 18 months, you get a brilliant echo that goes on and on and on - long after the security guard has asked you to step outside.
There's one trip we've become good at though - 10-pin bowling.
Bowling alleys have a consistency that The Boy finds reassuring. The lights aren't too bright, there's an airiness to the place and there are no surprises. You bowl the ball. It knocks things down. They get up again. Time after time.
But even then, our visit is not like most people's. So, if ever anyone fancies taking The Boy bowling for the school holidays, here's a crash course on how to make the trip a success:
- Get there early. The earlier the better. Preferably before the rest of civilisation has woken up. The concept of queuing and waiting is lost on The Boy who has no time for such trivial events.
- Select your lane carefully. You want one that's as far away from other human beings as possible. Other human beings cause anxiety and create noise, which only serves to divert attention from The Boy's own attempts to make noise. If Lanes 1-4 are occupied, Lane 37 is ideal.
- Beware rented shoes. Never underestimate just how odd a concept it is to swap your own perfectly reasonable shoes for a pair that have been worn by multiple strangers. For the duration of the game, prepare to be asked at least 17 times a minute if his own shoes are safe.
- Always use the gutter guard. The Boy may try to convince you that he doesn't want the guards up any more, to block the gutter, as he is now good enough at bowling. He isn't. The barbaric yelp accompanying each ball that trundles slowly down the gutter, will make the noise he made in the library appear like a whimper.
- Never, ever win. Introducing the concept of losing to The Boy is important. But this is the child whose frustration with the world has led to him being excluded from nurseries, childminders, after-school clubs, holiday play-schemes, mainstream schools and even a special school. So while he's holding a 15lb bowling ball, it's not the ideal time to take him on.
- Smile please! The stress of this trip will probably prevent you from leaving the house again for the rest of the holidays. Take lots of pictures where you're pretending to enjoy yourself. The aim is to fill up 41 pages of the school holiday diary. The other page can be used to write The Boy's name.
John William's blog, My Son's Not Rainman, is written to accompany his comedy show of the same name, currently touring the UK before a run at this summer's Edinburgh Festival .