This year was my husband and I’s 10 year wedding anniversary. We decided to celebrate by going to London for a couple of days. Our eldest son, J aged 4, has wanted to go to our capital for a while now (he’s seen videos on TV and Youtube). So we decided to take him along. We left our 4 month old with Grandma and Grandad so he could be spoilt with attention rather than squished in the busy city. It also meant we could focus on J and the additional needs he’d have visiting somewhere new and busy.
J is autistic. His main areas he finds challenging are social skills and sensory overload. So I made sure I planned ahead.
Travelling to London
We decided to go by train to London. This meant that instead of sat in a car for hours, J could get up and about when needed, look out the window and switch seats if he wanted. Also, we knew it would be a novelty for him so would distract him from the length of time sat surrounded by a lot of people. We had a really friendly conductor on our Greater Anglia train who made J his own special ticket, and chatted about where we were going. She even waved out the window when we got off to our connecting train.
J did well on the train. We took his ear defenders (Which he didn’t need on the main trains), snacks, drinks, magazine and some small toys. However, the saving grace was the fact our connecting train had wifi AND a plug socket so J could play Pokémon Go. We had fun looking at the pokemon he had caught, looked for pokestops that were near the stations we stopped at etc. It also gave me chance to relax with a drink.
Staying in the Hotel
We’re very fortunate that J has always loved hotels. We’ve stayed in quite a few and J has always enjoyed exploring them. Considering J isn’t a huge fan of change, it’s always surprised me. He associated hotels with adverts he’s seen so we usually stay at Premier Inn hotels when possible as he knows what to expect from them as they are all pretty much the same.
We stayed in the Premier Inn near Earls Court underground. The facilities were basic but perfect for one night stay. The only negative really was that it was a bit noisy so I didn’t sleep brilliantly (you can hear movements upstairs and in the corridor) but again, as it was only for one night if wasn’t a problem. The staff were amazing. Every staff member we interacted with was friendly and made the effort to talk to J. He felt very important. In the hotel room we had to make it ‘J friendly’ by putting the chair up against the door so he couldn’t get out during the night, his familiar toys on the bed (he ended up sleeping with us as he cant sleep on his own when we’re somewhere different) and he put the TV straight to his favourite channels to check they were there (they have freeview so we knew it would be ok).
We took snacks for the room which we knew J would eat (crisps, breakfast bars, fruit shoots etc). This way we saved money on having to go out and buy stuff, but it also meant we had food that we knew he’d eat. J has a restricted diet due to sensory aversions so it can make it challenging when we travel anywhere. It worked out ok as the hotel restaurant had sausages and chips, and there was McDonalds just about everywhere. We didn’t book the breakfast, instead J had a breakfast bar and we had pain au chocolate we had packed.
Travelling Around London
Our original plan was to buy a 24hour pass for the open top tour bus but as we choose problem the wettest day of the summer to go, we opted for the tube instead. I was unsure what J would think to it. Part of me thought he’d be fascinated by the fast paced trains, and the barriers, escalators etc. However I also worried that it would be too crowded, too noisy and busy. I made sure I gave him a strict talking to about never letting go of my hand or Daddy’s hand.
J wore his ear defenders and he enjoyed the tubes. He preferred sitting down rather than standing, but on a few occasions we didn’t have a choice so he’d stand and hold the pole, but would have the look on his face that tells me he’s ‘switched off’. J especially loved all the escalators which he found fascinating. We used our contactless cards which meant we didn’t have to worry about tickets. We simply held the card to the barrier and it would let us through. J would go through with me. Where possible we used the family/disabled access point simply because they are larger. In total for the two days it cost £14 for each adult (£7 per day).
We also did a lot of walking. The positive about London was that if you plan where you are going, you’ll find a lot of places are close together. J is not great at walking distances. The combination of social input, sensory input and hypermobility/difficulty with his legs all ends up in J being in quite a lot of pain. We made sure we had regular breaks either in cafes for a drink (and toilet break, as there’s not many public toilets about), sat on steps of monuments to see what we could see (whilst enjoying delicious treats from Doughtnut Time), and stopped off at Green Park to sit on the grass with food from the outlet.
London Science Museum
We were excited to find that alongside with The Natural History Museum, the Science Museum was also free to enter. There wasn’t a queue to get in so we went straight through to explore. The museum itself is spread over several floors. The place is big, open and busy. We decided to that instead of overloading J we would choose areas we knew his interests would lie. So, the first place to visit was the Space exhibition. J LOVED it. He found the planet display and sat for ages just watching it change to different planets, which he’d yell out to us. Ear defenders were a must, and came in very handy, as it is a busy place.
There was a lot of replicas to look at, real life videos, artifacts, demonstrations etc. J was eager to look around and explore them. He loves to get us to read everything in sight and he does take it all in.
Next we went to the ‘basement’ for some sensory exploration. We wanted to watch the Bubble Show as we thought this would be a fun bit of science for J. I had spoken to the accessibility team before we left for London to ask about facilities for children who are autistic. The staff were very open and supportive. We found a member of the team, and they passed us over to someone who took us to the ‘lab’ and organising for us to enter 5 minutes before the show started so J could go in quietly and get his bearings. It was a good job we did as it filled up FAST. J started by sitting on the floor with Daddy but as it got crowded and children were getting up and down, he came to sit on the bench with me. The show itself was entertaining and had lots of ‘learning’ and exploring. J loved the big bubbles, especially the ones that went right over the volunteers. The presenter was the perfect blend of funny and knowledgeable. The show is very recommended.
J was a bit overwhelmed by the end so we popped to the café for a drink and snack. It was reasonable priced for London, and had plenty of room. After a refuel we headed to the Garden Room which is a large sensory room for younger children. There was plenty of hands on things to explore. J loved the sound area where you could manipulate your voice and push buttons to see what happened. He was also a big fan of the ‘farting bench’. We were there for quite a while, with a lot of giggling.
We had a quick look around the ‘home’ areas which had lots of different eras of electrical items and everyday household machines. There were buttons to press and things to wind up and watch so it kept J happy. He laughed when he saw the old toilets where you had to empty them yourselves. J also found the first ever computer game fascinating and had a go at playing. The fact there were so many hands on things to explore really helped J to enjoy his visit.
We didn’t look around the whole museum. J had seen what he was particularly interested in, and as the museum was free we didn’t feel like we had to try and push it. We then popped pretty much next door to the next museum.
Natural History Museum
This is another free museum and was very busy. There was a long queue despite the downpour. Thankfully I had also spoken to the Natural History Museum accessibility team and we were able to ‘queue jump’ to get in. This was incredibly helpful as J would struggle with the queue. The physical needs of queuing would have meant he had no energy and lots of pain in his legs so wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the museum. The social side of queueing and being surrounded by so much noise, emotion etc would have wiped him out emotionally too. By being allowed to enter immediately meant he could spend his limited energy and sensory tolerance on enjoying the museum.
The museum felt like it had more space, which was nice. J could breath a bit easier and he was able to unwind a bit with some spinning, flapping, hand gestures etc without it getting in peoples way. Same with the Science Museum we selected which areas J would be most interested in. We headed to the earthquake and volcanos section. J loves anything that is based on planets, which includes weather and natural disasters. Again, he wanted us to read everything to him. He was impressed that he could touch some real lava (obviously all cooled and dried haha), saw video of people exploring volcanoes etc.
We then headed to the dinosaur section. J saw the stuffed animals which I don’t think he was too sure on. He had the look of ‘err, these were once alive?’ so he briefly looked at the animals and walked on. He loved seeing real fossils, real bones – as well as the replicas. We talked about how big they are, what they’d have eaten, how long ago they were alive. There was the fantastic T-rex which moved and roared. J watched from a distance but it was a bit much for him so we walked on. It’s not such as ‘hands on’ museum and is more about looking and learning.
We popped into the giftshop and J chose a dinosaur lollipop so he was a happy boy. Once we saw what we wanted to see, we headed to the exit where we found Andy’s clock (from Cbeebies). I think J was a little star struck so we posed for some photos.
Whilst in London we wanted to show J some of the historical parts of our Capital. The best part is that there’s so much to see and not pay a penny for (unless you want tours or to go inside):
- Buckingham Palace (although you can pay for tours)
- Parks (Hyde Park and Green Park are beautiful)
- Big Ben
- The bridges (J loved walking over and watching the tour boats)
- Tower of London
- Shakespeares Globe
- London Eye
- The Shard
- Camden Town
We were going to do the open top bus tours but it was very wet so we are going to save that for another time. I didn’t know what J would think to looking at architecture and landmarks. I wondered if he’d be bored or overwhelmed by crowds. But actually he was interested in everything we saw.
He was impressed we found where the Queen lived and liked the guards. He was fascinated by the fact there were armed police (we talk about how guns can be for protection and that about gun safety). J had fun playing with the water on the memorial in Green Park. It was great because it was a sensory activity which really helped to unwind him in between the busy places. It was quiet and chilled so we stayed for a bit before moving on.
Looking at the Thames interested J. He watched the London Eye, the boats on the river and watching the little waves. I had a very tight hold of him as you just never know what can happen. I gave him a reminder that it’s busy and he could lost. He did well staying in my grasps (he did try and pull away a few times when something took his interested so I did have to be vigilant).
We saved up spending money so we could treat J to a few things. There’s so many shops in London, many of which we don’t have near where we live. One of these is the Lego Shop. This was a magical place for J. He instantly spotted Star Wars and ran over to explore. He loved looking at the boxes, seeing the codes on them, how many pieces etc. He had a good look around and chose a Minecraft set to buy and a Star Wars key ring.
He had fun looking at the models of London landmarks and features. It’s really impressive to see the level of details. J had a go building his own models and was in his element the whole visit.
We also went to Hamleys. There are floors of exciting things to see and there’s staff demonstrating toys. J was a little overwhelmed in this shop. He had zoned out quite a bit which I think was because of the walking and how busy it was. However once we found the Star Wars and Pokemon sections he did perk up (although lots of flapping, talking to himself, echolalia etc so not 100% regulates). Again, J chose to buy Lego so was happy.
There’s many more shops I would have liked to explore but J had reached his limit. We wanted to leave on a positive so headed to the train station to relax with a drink and magazine.
I think the main advice I can give you (for all children, not just additional needs) would be:
- Watch YouTube videos or find books on London before you travel so your child has a visual of what’s going to be seen.
- Check out free WiFi and charging points if you find electronics helps your child to deal with busy places.
- Pack snacks and drinks as London isn’t the cheapest.
- Take visuals such as wait card for when it’s too overwhelming to follow verbal instructions.
- Email places you are visiting to find out what accessibility there is.
- Take ear defenders!
- Pack distraction toys and books.
- Find out where open space and sensory areas are for ‘down time’
- Choose a hotel near to where you want to explore, to minimise travel.
- Have a list of where you’d like to visit and write down the nearest tube station so you can have an itinerary in your head (we visited places close to together).
- Be vigilant – write your phone number on child’s hand/arm or get key ring with your number (NOT child’s name), use reins if you feel it’s safer to do so, keep phone charged and with up to date photo of your child (preferably from that day to show outfit). Hopefully these shouldn’t need to be used, but just in case!