Tips for Traveling as an Autistic Adult
At a Glance
In this post, we'll cover some tips for traveling as an autistic adult, compiling information from other autistic adults.
We'll outline some common stressors and how to navigate them so you can still enjoy accessing new and exciting experiences.
These tips involve strategies for planning ahead as well as affirm the importance of you enjoying your experience while traveling.
For many autistic adults, travel can represent both an exciting means of accessing new experiences and a stressful, sometimes overwhelming process that makes it hard to enjoy all the positives.
While all autistic people are unique in their particular stressors and how it affects them, many of those stressors are likely to be triggered by the potentially noisy, crowded, labyrinthine and hectic environments that travel can bring.
Elspeth Wilson described some of the ways she can face challenges in her article about how she approaches travel as an autistic adult:
“Even for neurotypical people, I highly doubt any of these things are pleasant to put up with, but as someone with heightened sensory sensitivity, traveling makes me feel like my brain is taking in too much information at once, tanking my ability to complete basic tasks and sometimes even pushing me into a meltdown.”
On top of the challenges that can come with any travel environment, you may find that some travel hubs do not do as good of a job ensuring accessibility as others and it may require a degree of research to make sure you will receive any accommodations you may find a necessary precondition to being able to travel at all.
Despite the challenges that can accompany it, many autistic adults still seek out the many benefits of travel, some of which they might not be able to access any other way.
While travel may always come with some degree of stress and need, there are also ways to plan ahead to try to minimize the impacts of those situations when they arise and in a best-case scenario avoid them altogether.
Lydia Watkins offers some helpful tips in her article on barriers for autistic adults including traveling with a sensory kit and making sure you always have access to your phone. But what are some broader concepts you might be able to apply to your personal needs?
Here are a few ideas to consider as well as some examples of how they might work in practice.
Prioritize personal comfort.
Some of you may have heard it before: when you’re traveling on an airplane you should dress nice. It may be a helpful sentiment for some people who like to dress up in fancy outfits, but fancy outfits can also take a lot of extra work to wear, invite all kinds of sensory annoyances, and get more uncomfortable as time goes on.
All of those little things add up over time, and if you are on a long journey you should not have to make your own experience worse just to meet some imagined standard of decorum! Wear the clothes that will help you feel most comfortable. The same goes for any other decision you might make on your journey.
Travel can take a toll even when everything goes smoothly, so plan ahead of time to lean into any option that will help you feel more comfortable. If you think you’d rather check your bag than have to keep track of it the whole way, go for it!
If you think ordering food at the airport will help calm your nerves even if it’s a little expensive then give yourself that little luxury! Traveling is a special circumstance and sometimes the best course of action is just to treat it as such.
Bring some anchor items.
Traveling can be a chaotic experience even when it goes relatively smoothly. Planes can change gates, train routes can get delayed, flights can get canceled.
Even when you arrive at your destination things may just be different from what you are used to and what you expected. Such differences can be exhilarating but they can also be a lot to take in all at once! In all such circumstances, one great way to help recenter yourself is to bring some comforting anchor items with you to bring a hint of familiarity whenever you need it.
Anchor items can range from a favorite stuffed animal to a particular comfort food and are just a nice slice of the familiar when there is too much to process. Obviously, anchor items are not effective in every situation, but they can go a long way toward stabilizing in tough spots!
Practice how it will go ahead of time.
One major challenge of travel is that lots of the things that go with it are relatively novel and it’s unlikely you’ve experienced it many times even if you have traveled before. This novelty can be tricky to navigate, as getting stuck on one challenge can lead to other challenges piling up and overwhelming.
The good news is that it is possible to practice ahead of time for any components of your planned trip that you are most worried about. Concerned about how you will be interacting with the TSA? Watch some videos that demonstrate the procedure and practice what you will do in each spot. Worried you might not make your connecting flight?
Lay out all the steps you need to take from the end of your first flight to the beginning of your second as well as what you’ll do if things aren’t quite happening as planned.
While no amount of planning will ever guarantee a perfect trip, practicing ahead of time will help turn all the easy parts into a breeze and give you a better sense of your priorities and what you need to do in the event that things don’t go as planned.
Check if your travel hub and/or destination offers any accessibility features that may benefit you.
For some travelers, certain accessibility features may be the difference between being able to travel and not being able to travel. Others may be able to travel without a given accessibility feature but would benefit from and use it if they could.
In any case it is a great idea to check in with both your travel hub and your destination about what kinds of accessibility features they may offer. Such information can often be found on a hub/desination’s website or if you call them directly.
Lydia Watkins cites in her article, for example, the Sunflower Lanyard program, which in the UK “discreetly signals you have an invisible disability.” While not every facility is aware of or accommodates the Sunflower Lanyard program, it is possible to check ahead and see if your destination does!
Likewise, if a given hub or destination has an accessibility office, it may be possible to contact them directly and inquire about your specific needs.
When possible, take time before travel to re-energize as best as you can.
Sometimes this particular step is easier said than done. Travel is often part of vacation, and part of maximizing vacation is squeezing travel in as efficiently as possible. But if traveling brings with it a considerable number of stressors and challenges then it’s almost certain to take up a considerable amount of our energy when we do it.
If you find traveling to be a major energy drain, it may be worth orienting your schedule to give yourself as much of an opportunity as you can to charge your own batteries before you get going.
Whether that means engaging in all of your most comforting activities, spending some extra time with yourself, or even just getting some extra sleep, doing that bit of extra prep for yourself ahead of time can make all the difference. While we may never know exactly what constitutes feeling “fully charged,” the more relaxed and prepared we can feel the better!
We hope these suggestions have helped to spur some additional thinking on the types of strategies that might work best for your personal travel plans.
If you’d like to hear more about travel from us or perhaps even a bigger travel-oriented toolkit (not to be confused with our Transportation Toolkit) then we would love to hear from you!
Just drop us a line at email@example.com and we will be back next week with a closer look at using airlines.