A Newbie’s Guide to Traveling While Autistic
Like many late-diagnosed adults, finding out that I’m autistic was a relief. Suddenly, somehow, everything in my life made sense. Overnight, I had a name for that out-of-place feeling I’d had since I was a child. Finally, I belonged somewhere.
But it also meant that everything changed, including my self-perception and the way I engaged with things I enjoyed. No surprises, therefore, that when it came to traveling—something that my partner and I regularly did pre-pandemic—I was apprehensive. How would the newly-awakened-autistic me deal with it?
How quickly would I be able to identify my triggers and pre-empt sensory overwhelm, meltdowns, and shutdowns? How was I possibly going to navigate airports, flights, layovers, and connections? How could I manage all the noise, people, lights, and unpredictability? Not to mention the uncertainties of travel to a foreign country, new languages and cultures, time zones, weather, and many other considerations, including COVID.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think of canceling the whole thing and going to bed for a week. But our last break was in December 2019. Two and a half years of being more or less stuck at home was negatively affecting our mental health. The choice was simple: take a break or prepare for bloodshed.
Cleaning up after a holiday is definitely the less messy choice.
We planned for two weeks in Indonesia—one in Yogyakarta in Java, the other in Ubud, Bali. As Indians, staying within Asia meant less of a culture shock, and not having to deal with racist airport staff who invariably zero in on brown-skinned folks for extra scrutiny.
TL;DR—it wasn’t a disaster. We were reasonably well-prepared and, while things did go wrong, we survived and even had fun. And this is what I learned about traveling while autistic:
1. Organizing my support system: I prefer traveling alone; I find it less stressful. But there are advantages to traveling with a companion, especially one who is knowledgeable about what it means to be with an autistic person and is willing to support you. In my case, this was my partner.
She knew to check in with me if I was anxious or overwhelmed; there were times when I was but hadn’t realized it until I was asked. She regularly inquired about what she could do to help. Things would have been very different if I’d had a travel companion who didn’t have my back.
This trip taught me that having a support system is important—if not in the form of a travel buddy who understands my needs, perhaps as a friend communicating through a phone call or messaging app. It also gave me good insight about what kind of travel would be extra hard. Large group holidays, for example, are definitely out for me.
2. Learning to delegate when possible: In the weeks preceding my break, I spent hours online looking up tips from other autistic travelers. The one thing all those traveling-while-autistic articles swear by is to plan well and not leave anything to chance. “Great,” I thought, “I’m a planner, so I’m all set.” Despite that, I know from experience that I am inevitably already stressed out by the time I’m at the airport. Turns out that all that planning and handling logistics on the ground alone can be pretty draining.
I didn’t want to start my holiday burnt out. So, for this trip, my partner and I decided that I would plan, but she would execute. That left me free to switch off during much of the traveling part. We tried this as an experiment with mixed results. I could never completely switch off, as numbers—including flight numbers and times—tend to stick in my head. But not being the one responsible for getting us to the gate on time meant I was more relaxed than usual.
This doesn’t mean I’m not looking forward to a solo holiday in the near future. Being in tune with what makes me anxious means planning accordingly. For example, making lists and arriving earlier than usual.
3. When things go wrong: Of course, things were going to go wrong. We had a bag that didn’t arrive with us at Yogyakarta; it was finally tracked down at our previous layover. Later that week, I confidently took us to the wrong airport for our flight to Bali and had a meltdown, believing that we would miss that flight. (We didn’t because it was late.)
A few weeks prior to the trip, my therapist mentioned having a “toolkit” for when things go wrong. So, I gave this situation some thought. I took time and space to calm myself right then and there. Next, we discussed our worst-case scenario, which wasn’t that bad—we could just get a later flight! And it wouldn’t have been that expensive for us either.
4. Letting go when you can: I’m lucky that I love to travel. Well, maybe not the getting-from-one-place-to-another part, but I love experiencing new places. That means being ready for adventures. Well, kind of.
Over this past year, learning to drop my mask—the metaphoric one that autistic and other neurodivergent folks use to blend in with neurotypicals, often at great cost to ourselves—has meant continually stopping to ask myself how I’m doing. This has enabled me to accurately gauge if I feel safe and confident to do something spontaneously, or if I’m pushing myself to the point of overwhelm.
In Nusa Dua in Bali, I felt safe saying yes to an incredible marine walk. I walked on the ocean bed wearing a 45 kg helmet into which oxygen was being pumped. I managed my aversion to textures, touching fish, anemone, and corals. I also learned that I’m not ready to touch a starfish yet. But I plan to go snorkeling next time!
5. Asking for help: Some places may not have much awareness about autism, especially in adults. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help. I’ve always prided myself on my independence and self-sufficiency, but I’m learning now that refusing to ask for help can be a trauma response.
People in both Java and Bali were helpful and friendly, so asking for accommodations was possible without having to over-explain. Communicating was relatively simple even without a common language—a bit of an adventure at times, but in a good way. Hotel staff, I discovered, can do a lot more than just show you to your room. They can liaise with airport staff to retrieve lost luggage, hail becaks (three-wheeled rickshaws used for local travel), and negotiate with cab drivers.
Of course, asking for help isn’t always an option. My go-to back-up is asking the internet. Before travel, I make sure to keep a list of resources about my destination. Researching the place I’m traveling to is absolutely essential, too.
6. Preparing for post-trip burnout: Before autism appeared on my radar, I was always puzzled by why holidays rarely recharged me. Whereas other people came home refreshed, I would be knocked out for days, even if I’d had the best trip possible. As for jet lag, whether it’s a 1.5-hour or 5.5-hour difference changes nothing—I’m guaranteed to be physically dysregulated for days.
Learning about sensory overload was the key to understanding that that is a common—perhaps even expected—part of neurodivergent experience. Therefore, penciling in post-trip burnout recovery needs should be an essential part of any autistic holidaymaker’s itinerary. (Learn from my mistake—don’t schedule a deadline two days after your return.)
After my diagnosis, I became aware of the true cost of masking on my mental and physical health. I realized the toll it could take and feared that my travel days might be over. I am perpetually exhausted from hiding my “autisticness” for more than four decades: copying words, expressions, and behaviors from neurotypical people around me to fit in. But learning to unmask with intention has been just as difficult. Like many of us diagnosed as adults, I don’t really know who I am when I’m authentically me. This sometimes made a public-facing activity like a holiday trip feel like an insurmountable hill to climb.
But it doesn’t have to be. Most tourist destinations and public spaces may not be autism-friendly (though inclusive, accessible spaces have increased over the years), but it doesn’t mean we don’t get to occupy those spaces. With some strategic planning and combining our collective wisdom, traveling while autistic on our own terms is possible.
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