Travelling with autism
My name is Lydia, and in 2015 I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome after a three year wait. I had always been literal, struggled with communication at times and lacked a filter to regulate noise. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) covers a variety of conditions, including Asperger’s Syndrome. It has various hallmarks, including sensory issues, special interests, struggling to cope with change and more.
Fast forward a few years and I now regularly travel for my job as a freelance journalist – often to London for the day and sometimes on longer trips. As a young adult with Autism, travel can sometimes be difficult for me. I used to see it just as a necessity, but now I love to see new places, to explore and observe different cultures. In order to travel successfully, it helps to have a plan in place to work around issues that may arise. So I’ve put together a list of things that I find useful, with the help of the #ActuallyAutistic community on Twitter.
Planning your trip
Planning a holiday can be overwhelming due to the amount of steps it takes – booking a flight and sorting out transport to the airport, choosing a hostel and working out how to get there. There’s a lot, and it’s sometimes like my brain can’t take it. To manage my executive dysfunction, usually I make a list and take it step by step – that way I can make sure nothing gets missed out. I also have a list of reminders, like buying local currency and checking the amount of liquids allowed.
Many people with autism find it helps to travel at quieter times of the year. The way I would describe my Asperger’s Syndrome is that it’s like I have no filter for sound. The average person may hear ‘basic’ sounds, like people talking and commands to go through security. At an airport I can hear the doors squeaking, the footsteps, the many voices, the clunk of bags in the security scanners, the heavy noise of shops playing different songs – all on top of ‘basic’ sounds. I lack a filter to regulate noise, and at times it can be incredibly overwhelming. I find that this can be minimised by travelling when the airports will be less busy; for instance avoiding school holidays.
As you can probably already guess, I’m a huge fan of lists. Whenever I pack my suitcase I usually have a checklist at hand, sometimes ordered by how many days I’ll be away. I put everything on the checklist: clothes, shoes, toiletries, entertainment devices, books – thought out well in advance so I don’t forget a thing. As I pack, I tick the items off.
Airports… well, I could probably describe them as being my kryptonite. There’s a lot of people and noise to deal with, as well as having to go through passport control, having your bags checked, getting through security, finding your gate. Thankfully though, most airports are starting to make reasonable adjustments.
Some airports have sensory rooms, which some people may find useful. They provide an escape from the general airport hustle and bustle, as well as offer a range of helpful facilities. Gatwick airport’s has two zones – ‘chill out’ and ‘interactive’. Note that they may need to be booked in advance.
Spelling out the routine – what to do, where to go and when – can also be helpful. This is something I have heard parents of Autistic children speak about, and many people find that it helps to reduce anxiety. Gatwick airport has this helpful visual guide already prepared. I feel less anxious when there’s some sort of plan in place, otherwise my brain fixates on unresolved issues: “What if we’re late?” “What time does the gate close?” “What if we miss the flight?”
It may be useful to carry an Autism Alert Card on your person. If you struggle with communication, these cards explain in a succinct, straight-to-the-point manner what Asperger’s Syndrome is, and how someone neurotypical (that is, someone not on spectrum) could help you. You can buy them cheaply here.
I like to have headphones in when it comes to takeoff. They act as a filter, so I’m not tapped into the rush of sounds around me. The rockier the music, the better I find the experience of flying – Queen’s ‘Innuendo’ is a personal favourite. This proved helpful when I visited Germany in November. The sense of excitement you get from visiting a new place and observing a different culture makes the transit totally worthwhile. And it’s always great to have a travel a soundtrack!
I’ve also read books written by Autistic people who like to use aides – things like fidget spinners, fidget cubes, pieces of particular fabric – as a form of distraction. This was something I hadn’t considered before, but now I have a small purse in my handbag that lets you can change the colour of the sequins. This helps to calm me down.
Where to stay
When travelling, it pays to take extra care considering where you stay. I once stayed overnight for a conference in the busiest part of the city and found it to be a horrible experience. It didn’t help that it was next to a club and on a Friday night. Lesson learnt.
So, consider the location of your accommodation. Is it in a city centre? Is it on the outskirts of town? If it’s in the city centre, it may be worth investing in noise cancelling headphones or ear buds for when you try to sleep, or maybe consider staying a little further out. If you’re staying on the outskirts, think ahead about planning your best route to and from the city.
This has worked well for me on the occasions I’ve visited Rotterdam. With hardly any noise I felt peaceful and was able to sleep – meaning I was ready to get out and explore first thing in the morning. Thanks to this I fell in love with Rotterdam – so much so that I wrote this guide. I love the architecture, the history and the street art. I was lucky enough to meet a friend for life, experience a new city and am now attempting to learn Dutch!
It’s true that autism can make travel stressful, and just that little bit harder. However, I find that if there’s a little bit more preparation, then any potential issues can be overcome. No one should have to miss out on the joys of travelling!
About the author
Lydia Wilkins is an NCTJ qualified freelance journalist. She has written for various publications including The Independent, The Brighton and Hove Independent and BN1 Magazine. She documents her life as an Autistic Female at Mademoisellewomen.com. You can find her on Twitter at @Journo_Lydia.