Autistic While Traveling: Haley Moss' Top Tips for a Successful Trip
Posted on 11/06/19 in Life Skills by Haley Moss, Esq.
*Note - I am referring to myself as "autistic in this blog post. Language preference is a personal choice. I do not feel my autism is being packed in my luggage with me while I travel; my autism is very much a part of who I am!
I can't pack my autism into a suitcase and see the world in a neurotypical way, but I can try my best to travel and experience the world as an autistic person. A legendary childhood story of mine involves being on a flight with my parents when I was about two years old. I cried and screamed so much throughout the flight when we landed at our final destination, the other airline passengers stood up and clapped to celebrate the departure of the likely overloaded toddler and her parents. Once I was more verbal, we went on more trips, albeit not many that involved flying (those did not show up more often until I was late in my high school career) - naturally as Floridians, our vacations of choice were cruises and Disney World.
It wasn't until my adult life I began traveling and flying independently, for business and for fun. I've previously written about travel and disability right after the first time I went on a trip by myself. I was 21 years old, and was going to fly from sunny Miami to cold (but not quite snowy) Washington, D.C., for a portion of a school break. I remember feeling nervous, afraid of the hustling and bustling of the airport with its bright lights and loud noises, of being perceived as suspicious, or not knowing what to do. I remember a kind stranger in front of me in the security line, who waited for me to collect my carry-on from the scanner because I looked as nervous as I felt. When I thanked her, she told me she had a child who was "about my age" and acted on her maternal instincts.
I've learned a lot since that solo trip to D.C., especially since I travel more frequently than ever because I work with all sorts of autistic people, parents, educators, and professionals across the country. No matter where on the autism spectrum you, your family members, or students may fall, there are some travel tips that may help all of us:
Be organized (as best you can).
Historically speaking, I am not the most organized person in the world - ask me about my laundry another day. But I always try to pack a few days before a trip and to make a "last minute list" because I am not the best at executive functioning and working memory tasks. My "last minute list" includes items I am more likely to forget: phone charger, wallet, boarding passes, anything I may use the night or morning before leaving home for a few days (i.e., my makeup bag) and I cross the items all off the list as I place them in my luggage. I also have a "go bag" - which is a zipped plastic bag - containing travel toiletries and necessary self-help items (travel-sized shampoos, deodorant, makeup remover, toothbrush and toothpaste). I leave the "go bag" in a safe place; it is always pre-packed and usually doesn't need to be emptied upon the return home, so one less thing to worry about! These little organization hacks make it that I am less likely to forget something important and allow me to use my cognitive skills on bigger tasks.
When flying, minimize the amount of steps and distractions to avoid a sensory overload or meltdown.
This helps to make the experience less overwhelming. For me, this minimalization was the life-changing investment of signing up for TSA Pre-Check so I did not have to take off my shoes or empty out my bag at the airport. That meant I could keep my comfiest shoes and clothes on (though sometimes you might have to remove a sweatshirt), and not mess up the organization I did while packing by taking out liquids or my laptop. It also reduces the amount of time I spend in line because most airports have a special line for Pre-Check passengers, which in turn makes me feel less anxious and more confident.
If the experience is overwhelming regardless, a great resource is if your airline or airport have any autism-specific programs for boarding/flying or within the airport. MIA has a sensory room and several other airports I've flown in and out of had them as well. While I've yet to personally investigate their awesomeness, I know these programs and rooms are wonderful resources and safe havens for many of my autistic friends and their families.
Go over the steps.
It is important for people on the spectrum to understand the steps involved and what to expect. Let us know if you think somewhere may be loud, bright or crowded. Being prepared is far less scary than being surprised, if possible. Have back-up plans of quiet places or ways to feel calmer if a destination or means of travel feels like too much at any given time.
Bring something comforting.
Travel naturally is a disruption in routine, so bring a little piece of home to minimize homesickness or anxiety about the routine change. This can be an activity, a stuffed animal, or stim toys - anything that helps reduce anxiety and brings comfort. I find this especially vulnerable if going on a longer trip, or maybe if you are going to visit family or friends rather than go sightseeing in a tourism destination.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Haley Moss is a Florida native who was diagnosed with autism at age three and is now a practicing attorney. She graduated with her Juris Doctor from the University of Miami School of Law in 2018 and was one of Milestones' keynotes for the 2019 Milestones National Autism Conference.
She is a renowned visual pop artist and the author of “Middle School: The Stuff Nobody Tells You About” and “A Freshman Survival Guide for College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders: The Stuff Nobody Tells You About.” She also was the illustrator and a contributor for the Autism Women’s Network anthology “What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew.” Her writing has been featured in HuffPost, Elite Daily, The Mighty, and other websites and publications.
Haley was most recently honored as the 2018 Publix Self-Advocate of the Year, the 2018 UM-NSU CARD Outstanding Self-Advocate, and the 2018 Voices of Hope Honoree by Birch Family Services in New York City.
This article was written by a guest writer for Milestones Autism Resources. Views and opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own. Milestones strives to create conversation around important topics in the autism community and to provide members of the community with a platform to share their honest perspective. In addition, while Milestones Autism Resources’ policy is to practice person-first language, we encourage all self-advocates to identify themselves as they wish, so you may see language throughout the blog that does not align with Milestones’ internal person-first language policy.