How to travel as an autistic adult

Heya! This post was previously published on Little Pink Kayak, but the site has been down for quite some time and I cannot get a hold of the owner. I wrote this in 2016, based on the experience from traveling to Austin with my cousin, Charlise (the owner of this blog) for the Austin food allergy fest. I’m posting it here as-is because it received a nice response. Enjoy!

I’ve only traveled with others, but I’ve the basics down: have a well-developed plan, consider detours, bring at least one comfort object. Planning extends beyond how long I will or won’t stay: what am I going to eat? What if I can’t tolerate jeans tomorrow? Because I’m autistic and have life-threatening allergies to nuts, the entire trip must be analysed. I don’t favor spontaneity.

Woman standing before the sun in short shorts, with her arms outstretched; her back is facing the camera

“Packing light” is redefined in my book. For me, it means I’m daring and going to stuff all my clothes into two bags instead of three. It means the third bag I will take will be for food only—just in case I can’t get my mouth on safe, free-from foods with steady sensory input. My idea of traveling alone is staying overnight in a hotel a maximum of one hour away from home.

Earlier this year, I went to Austin with a cousin for a food event. I hadn’t much clue of the hotel we would be going to, because the website had few visuals. I misunderstood what would be available for breakfast, so I made do with a waffle and too-sweet syrup. We had bought groceries to take along with us for our trip, but they were comprised of snack foods. It was also freezing and the sheets scratchy, but I had not brought a blanket. I had my pajama pants from that morning because it was cold when we’d left, but I can’t wear long pants to bed because it feels weird.

If I was doing the trip over again, I would do several things differently.

Plan way ahead

We decided we’d only go out for dinner, possibly stopping at a drive-thru for some fast food on our way home. We went shopping for groceries that night, and I didn’t get home until close to midnight. I still had to shower and relax to a point that allows sleep. I didn’t fall asleep until around three. We were to leave around seven the next day.

Consider actual meals

Breakfast usually holds zero value to me, but when I’m away from home, eating comforts me. We went grocery shopping for our trip on empty stomachs—our first mistake. Our second mistake is thinking we’d be alright with snack foods. Our third mistake was buying cheaper brands for some items, even though we’d never tried them before.

Instead of buying whatever, we should have considered actual meal-related items. Our hotel room had a small refrigerator and a microwave, so we could have bought a couple of those quick pasta cups—ramen, macaroni and cheese, ravioli, etc.

Also: napkins and silverware. How did we fail to remember silverware?

Make a list of all the things you’re taking

I did this. I wish I’d been more specific, though, because I almost forgot my favorite pajama pants. “Pants” is not enough when you’re taking more than one pair of pants. If you also have poor memory, make note of the color or design of something. Leave room for nothing to be a victim of absentmindedness.

Consider detours and other unexpected events

Accept ahead of time the trip may take longer than the predicted drive time Google estimated. I failed to consider rest stops in the approximate drive time, so my anxiety started building up when we were about two hours behind our intended arrival time. We kept stopping for breaks—restroom, food, leg-stretching.

My cousin didn’t expect us to arrive before the food fest began, but I always feel anxious when tardiness is a possibility.

Quiet time is pleasant, but entertainment items are also needed

We didn’t bother much with the TV. I think we tried, but nothing good was on. My cousin doesn’t lock her car door much, and I didn’t want to keep up with my laptop, so I left it at home. I didn’t need anxiety caused by an unknown environment and paranoia of whether someone was going to steal my laptop going on a blind date with each other.

She had her laptop, but the hotel room only had two plug outlets—and each were a stretch. Laptops run out of battery easily…as do phones. I should have brought one of my fill-in or word search books.

If you need something to occupy your hands, or attention, consider things you can take that won’t take up too much space.

Take a comfort object—and maybe your own blanket, too

I’m easily hot. I wasn’t expecting a hotel room with the superpower of freezing quickly, so I didn’t think I would need to take a blanket. It would have made a huge difference, though. When I visit family, I always take my own blanket to cover up with. Sometimes, I take along a pillow.

My comfort object was my favorite pair of pajama pants, but I also found comfort in some of the foods we took with us. Cheddar-flavored potato chips, for example, are predictable. I take comfort in predictability.

Even if it seems silly to others, you know your capabilities and needs best. A lot of it is trial and error. I’m hyper aware, so I notice changes easily (most of the time). I also forget I’ve adapted my room to be a haven for myself as an autistic individual with sensory sensitivities, so it’s easy to think the outside world will be the same.

If nothing else, forgo packing light and take what you feel comfortable with. It’s what I’m doing now.