Life on the Spectrum

I am planning to go on a trip in a few weeks. This has, as is usual with me, kicked my anxiety into overdrive. I am in my 40s, and I have never been on an airplane in my life. Everything I have heard about airport security being suspicious of anyone who acts nervous in the slightest way has made me seek out information and tips for traveling while autistic. What are airports like in terms of sensory input? Will it bother airport security if I have trouble making eye contact? Do I have to let them touch me? What if my auditory processing issues make me miss the announcement for my flight?

There is almost no information available for adult autistics when it comes to travel. Do a Google search for “flying” or “traveling” and “autism” or “Asperger’s,” and you’ll find “tips for autistic travelers and their families,” and “flying with your Asperger’s child” and “information for families of children with special needs.” It’s even worse for non-Americans, because most of the information that is available makes reference to the TSA and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which are not relevant if you’re not traveling to or in the U.S.

Guess what. Autistic people travel. We go on holidays just like non-autistic people (those who can afford to do so, at least). We travel to autism conferences and/or to conferences related to our special interests. Some autistic people travel on business. There are autistic people who are in demand as speakers and lecturers who have to fly to the places they give their lectures. So why is there so little information? I can only guess that it’s because if an autistic adult is able to travel on his or her own, he or she must be considered to be “high functioning” and therefore assumed to not need help. I was even told that there is information for children and not adults because adults, being adults, don’t need any help with such routine, everyday things as getting on an airplane.

Fortunately, I was able to find help from a fellow Aspergian person who has experience with air travel, and some help from Westjet airline. The answers to my questions were as follows:

“What are airports like in terms of sensory input?” I was told I should bring my earplugs, because airports are noisy places, but not to use them unless absolutely necessary so that I can hear the security agents speak to me and so that I can hear when my flight is called.

” Will it bother airport security if I have trouble making eye contact?” It might, but if I explain to them that I am autistic they will probably understand. If I am able to do so, though, I should try to make eye contact. It’s a big thing to demand of an autistic person, but it may be necessary.

“Do I have to let them touch me?”  Because I am flying within Canada and not internationally, I probably won’t be patted down as long as I do not have anything metallic on my body. I should make sure that I don’t wear an underwire bra.

“What if my auditory processing issues make me miss the announcement for my flight?” If I identify myself as a person with a disability, I should be permitted to bring a person with me into the terminal who can listen for me. On the airplane, I can request written copies of in-flight announcements, like the safety briefing.

I’ve been told it’s a good idea to have some handouts about autism ready to give to people who may have questions.

My chosen airline, Westjet, has a lot of information and support available for customers with disabilities, and I will contact them a few days before my flight to touch base and find out if there is anything they can do to make my trip easier for me.

My biggest anxiety now is actually booking my flight and making it to the airport. Whenever something causes me anxiety, I actively avoid doing it, even if it’s something positive. My trip makes me nervous, so I’m still putting off buying my plane ticket. I’d better do it soon, because I have already paid for a three-day sightseeing package at my destination.

Once I return from my trip, I hope to have more information available for my fellow autistic travelers to help others who have the same questions I have.

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Comments on: "Autistic Adults Travel, Too!" (1)

  1. I don’t have experience travelling within Canada, but I do have a lot of experience with international flights, both within Europe and transatlantic.

    Some of the things I do to prepare:

    1. Make sure that I have followed all the instructions about what items you can and cannot bring as hand luggage to the letter. Nothing causes me more stress and anxiety than having to unpack my bag in a line full of people. I have all my liquids in a 1 litre see-through plastic bag, and I get it out of my hand luggage before entering the queue. Any metal objects go into a separate bag as well, including keys, belt, shoes, phone, earrings, and anything else I can think of. I’d rather walk the entire queue in socks than having to take my shoes off while people behind me are waiting for me to get a move on.

    2. Have my ticket printed out at least a day before travelling. If the airline offers online check-in, have my boarding pass printed out as well. (Online check-in is DA BOMB, by the way. One less queue to deal with!) Put them both in a small bag together with my passport, which I carry on my person at all times. Neck pouches are ideal for that, if you can stand the sensory input.

    3. Music. Usually an upbeat soundtrack with lots of stimmy songs. Bouncing through the airport may make people look weirdly at me, but it’s a lot better than feeling anxious.

    4. Look up the layout of the airport online, if possible. Some airports have maps with all the shops and gates on their website. I try to find the most efficient route with the least chance of having to navigate huge crowds. And it really helps to know beforehand where I need to go. (This also gives me a chance to look up if there are smoking areas anywhere, because that is definitely a thing I need to be able to function, but I know that not everyone will be interested in that).

    5. Bring as little hand luggage as possible. Disembarking *without* having to try and get your stuff from the overhead lockers in the midst of an aisle full of people trying to jostle for room, trying to get out of the plane, and trying to get their own stuff, is a major plus. As a corollary: either get an aisle seat so that you can leave your seat easily and quickly, or get a window seat so that you can wait with the jostling until most people have disembarked.

    6. At my destination, get outside as quickly as possible. This gives me space to re-orient myself, check my belongings, and only then figure out what my next step is. Taxis, trains, car rental: it can all wait until I’ve taken a deep breath. That’s a lot easier to do outside than inside a crowded arrivals hall. You can always go back inside, that’s the beauty of arrival halls.

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