• Mair Elliott

Travelling as an autistic person

Travel, for me personally, is an opportunity to learn more about the world. To see more than what I have already seen. To experience other cultures, traditions and places. I like to travel because I like to explore, I like adventure. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t also tough. As an autistic person with a deep affinity for routine and familiarity, travelling is also terrifying. As a person with mental illness, I need stability to stay stable; travel does not often give stability. What this means is that I have to weigh up the positives of travelling with the negatives, and find ways to try and combat the negatives. So, I thought it could help others who want to travel if I put a few of the ideas, thoughts and strategies that I use when travelling that help me get the most out of the travelling experience.

1. Invest in a good pair of noise cancelling headphones.

My headphones are with me at all times when travelling. I find airports, train stations and the whole getting from A to B part of holidays and travelling a massive anxiety inducing affair. This heightens my already hyper-sensitive hearing and makes it hard to deal with crowds, not something you want in spaces such as airports. Listening to music, radio programmes, e-books, sounds of nature, like waves, or even just have the noise cancelling on without listening to anything helps to manage the anxiety and sensory overwhelm. My headphones allow me to combat noise, keep calm, be a mindfulness exercise opportunity, distraction and more.

2. Locate the quiet spot.

There is always a quiet spot. In a random corridor of an airport, in a very far corner of a train station, on a park bench, ect. Find the quiet spot and stay there when you need to. I have become a pro at finding quiet places in public areas. Even if I have to sit on the floor, I’d prioritise the quiet over a real seat.

In the same way, if I get overwhelmed when out sightseeing, I go back to the quiet of the accommodation I am staying in. Its not worth me pushing myself to keep sightseeing because I won’t enjoy the things I planned to do if I’m overwhelmed. Its better for me to go back, get some headspace and try again another day.

Under this heading I also include the quiet times. Often there are times in the day where tourist attractions and places are less busy. Make the most of these times. For example, on my recent trip to Germany I realised that most people didn’t get out and about until 11ish with peak busy times being in the early afternoon. So, I got up early and did the things I planned to do each day before 11 o’clock. I then spent the rest of the day relaxing in the tranquillity of my accommodation, successfully avoiding the crowds.

3. Pre-plan as much as you possibly can.

As I’m sure many of my fellow autistic people will agree, spontaneity isn’t really our thing. I plan as much as I possibly can even before I’ve left home. I work out the attractions I want to see, the places I want to visit and I never leave home without having booked all of my accommodation and transport (bar local public transport that isn’t pre-bookable. For this I just read up on how to book tickets for these things, so I at least know how to get tickets when I get there). I even use google maps and street view to digitally walk the routes I will need to walk between places. Knowing there is a plan makes it much easier for me to manage my anxiety.

4. Be prepared for your plan to mess up.

There will always be something that will mess up the plan; a cancelled train, an attraction closed on the day you planned to visit, a flight delay. These things happen, they are annoying to NTs, but for us autistic people they are a massive trigger for overwhelming anxiety and even meltdowns.

When these things happen the first thing I do is get my anxiety under control; I can’t make good decisions if my anxiety is running high. Que headphones, diazepam, stim toys, quiet place, etc. Once I have my anxiety under enough control that I can at least make decisions, I find out what the implications are for this unexpected change in plan. Sometimes it doesn’t mean too much hassle, for example, a replacement bus service for a cancelled train; you just get on a bus instead of a train.

When the implications are a little more complex, say a flight delay which will affect ongoing connections, I figure out if I can get to my destination another way (google is a life saver in times like these). If I can’t do it myself, I look for someone who can help me; most public areas have an info desk somewhere.

My main point for this heading is to make sure you can manage your anxiety in safe and effective ways before you decide to travel. I have spent years mastering the ability to manage my anxiety, it’s not an easy or a simple process, but it is possible. I can now travel on my own, cope with unexpected changes in travel plans and have a good time travelling. So, don’t lose hope if you’re not at that point yet, you’ll get there.

5. Get an apartment or accommodation where you can cook for yourself.

Many autistic people have disordered eating, eating disorders and/or food intolerances and allergies. This can be a major issue when travelling. I am gluten intolerant, lactose intolerant, vegetarian and have a long history of eating disorders; finding places to eat is a nightmare. This is why I always book accommodation where I can cook my own food. It may cost a bit more, but it saves me so much hassle, anxiety and gastrointestinal distress. I can cook the food I like and can eat, keep some structure around mealtimes and I don’t have to face the sensory nightmare of restaurants.

6. Take your medication, coping skills and stim toys.

Everything you have in your anxiety management tool kit should come travelling with you. I take my favourite stim toys because it helps me keep my anxiety in-check. All of the skills I have developed over the years, I utilise them. If I need it, my diazepam comes with me everywhere.

All of the things you do at home to stay well or keep the anxiety under control, use them when travelling. This is also relevant if you also have a mental illness like me, do what you do at home to keep the illness in check.

7. Don’t feel obliged to do anything.

There is sometimes pressure when travelling to see everything and visit all of the tourist attractions. This can be overwhelming, tiring and anxiety provoking. I pace myself by only planning to do 1 tourist attraction or visit a day. If I feel okay, I do more, if not, then I go back to my accommodation and relax. It’s okay to not see or do everything. Enjoy what you can and don’t worry if the anxiety or overwhelm prevents you from doing things.

8. Set up as much of a routine as possible.

Similar to pre-planning everything, keeping a daily routine is really important for me to help manage anxiety and to help negate any potential difficulties caused by executive dysfunction. I try and get up at the same time, go to bed at the same time, eat my meals at the same time, leave the accommodation at the same time, etc.

It is of course difficult to keep a routine when travelling, but small things like mealtimes, on most occasions, can be kept at the same times. I have to have my 3 main meals in a routine because otherwise I am likely to forget. Which only serves to invite my eating disorder to take advantage. I also need to keep a sleep routine otherwise I know I will not sleep at all – its no fun travelling on zero sleep. I know some people might consider this ‘boring’, but this is what I need to do as an autistic person to cope.

9. Google maps and street view are a life saver.

Seriously. I can’t even remember the number of times I have needed to use google maps and street view.

10. Learn to be comfortable to ask for help.

This is coming from someone who’s life ambition is to live alone as far away from any other human beings as possible. I try and avoid social contact at all costs. My friends probably see me every couple of months, and that’s usually enough for me. But when you’re travelling there will be times when you have no idea where you are going, or which train to get on, or what street your accommodation is on, and google won’t help you. Seriously, it happens sometimes. It’s these times that you have to be comfortable asking someone for help, even if there are language barriers.

11. Make sure your family/partner/carer knows where you are, what your plans are, and how to get hold of you.

It’s a simple thing but it could save your life. If something happens to you, at least other people are aware of your plans so will know when something isn’t right. It’s also about giving them reassurance that you are okay and having a good time.

12. Get into the spirit of adventure.

Travelling might be scary, anxiety inducing and overwhelming, but it’s also exciting, fun and light-hearted. Its an adventure! Its about exploring new things, learning about different cultures and places, and satisfying curiosities. Make the most of it, enjoy yourself and let yourself have a little freedom.

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About Me

I am a young patient  activist, speaking openly about life with mental illness and autism. My activism includes public speaking, trying to affect change in mental health and/or autism services by contributing to relevant organisations, panels, committees and executive boards. I hope to break down misconceptions, stereotypes and stigma relating to mental illness and autism, and to create a future where mental health services are fit for purpose.

Want to hear me speak? Curious about my story? Think I could help you or your organisation to understand mental health and/or Autism?

Get in touch; Mair.elliott97@gmail.com


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