How I Braved 70 Travel Hours with Sensory Success!
Philippine beach sunset on left with black and white image of Gretchen Leary by palm tree on right

Philippine beach sunset on left with black and white image of Gretchen Leary by palm tree on right

By Gretchen McIntire

I remember the exact moment when I knew I needed to go back to the place I was born last year. I was listening to a song from the Moana soundtrack while I was out on my daily walk in my neighborhood in Boston suburbs. Something about the music, the sunshine on my back, and the message hit home for me and I knew I needed to return to my roots.  I was born in 1986 on the U.S. Naval Base in the Philippines and it was time to return. I needed to know what it felt like to dig my toes in the sands of the ocean in Olongapo City again.

I wanted to do something for the people in the place I was born.

I planned to donate art supplies and copies of my books to local schoolchildren with autism. After some research and networking, I found the right people and the right school to work with. It all actually fell apart and then back together at the last moment as the first school and plan fell through.

I started fundraising at home and at church to pay for my flight to the Philippines. After thirty-two years of silence, I reconnected with my former nanny, Olivia, who was located in Subic. As the funds grew, so did my anxiety because the trip became real.

Once the trip became real, I began to prepare for successful traveling my way.

I started using a language app called DuoLingo to learn some conversational and basic Tagalog to feel more confident while I was there.

I knew beforehand that it would be approximately seventy hours of travel round trip including long layovers in Qatar. My family was very nervous because I was traveling alone. We were nervous because I have Dysautonomia, which is often triggered by humid weather, along with my autism-related sensory issues. On one hand, I was very nervous about fainting most of the trip and what might happen since I was alone; on the other-hand so incredibly excited to be giving back.

The trek itself was arduous.

I used Mel Robbins’ 5 Second Rule to combat panic attacks. I would repeat the words “Five, four, three, two, one. I’m not anxious, I’m just excited.” Using this trick calms the nervous system by reactivating the prefrontal cortex and soothing the amygdala. Feeling somehow connected to Boston eased my anxiety, too. Keeping my phone battery charged and a seat nearby helped prevent dizzy spells. Trying to keep anything that felt familiar close by helped. Wearing a sweatshirt or sweater from a friend helped. Touching my cross pendant helped. Any reminder of routine helped.

My anxiety lessened slightly once I arrived in Olongapo City.

I reunited with Olivia whose hugs calmed my frayed nerves. After our reunion, I was alone in a hotel in Southeast Asia, where I spent quite a bit of time because it was rainy season and extremely humid outside. To feel less alone and anxious, I added touches of familiarity for routine and comfort. This is where Facebook Messenger was a total gift for me because despite the time change and distance, I was able to video chat and talk to my friends back home. Communication through Facebook Messenger became my constant. I couldn’t seem to adjust to the local time at first, so I was able to chat with friends in Boston quite a bit.

Food has always been a comfort thing for me because I don’t really get creative with food. I panicked when I first saw their menu as almost nothing looked familiar and involved potential shellfish (highly allergic) until I saw the words “Grilled ham and cheese with fries”. I ordered that greasy grilled ham and cheese for almost every meal for the entire stay. I became “the American who eats Grilled Ham & Cheese with Fries” at the hotel. But I didn’t mind – the meal was familiar, inexpensive and didn’t risk my shellfish allergy. 

I will never forget my day at the Gordon Heights Elementary School I SPED Center.

Despite the humidity, I was in tears when I entered the classroom. The students hung up my name in colorful letters and prepared a talent show in my honor. Considering the state of poverty this city is in, this blew my mind. I felt so undeserving of the attention. It was truly humbling to be there with Olivia and watch the children sing and dance.

Gretchen Leary in classroom in Philippines

“I was able to read my books to the children and speak to their parents about the honor of returning to the city I was born in and offer a message of hope about Autism acceptance.” 

They served a meal afterwards, and then their superintendent presented me with an award. I was completely speechless. When I discovered how many students with Autism were in their school system, my heart sank. I’ll never forget the small boy who smiled and stared at me for almost the entire day laying upside down on the top of his desk while I read my books aloud.

I only had two days of sunshine during that trip, but it did not rain on my opinion of the trip.

Going to the Philippines and spending time giving back was all worth it. It was worth the sleepless travel, fifteen-hour flights, time change, routine change, and many other inconveniences that could have led to numerous meltdowns. Something about knowing I was alone helped me stay stronger than ever. I think I may have aged a few years and gained a gray hair, but I grew as a person and the people I met changed my life.

Their generosity and kindness will stay with me forever. 

For my final morning in the Philippines, I woke up to see the sunrise. I raced down the staircase, across the hotel lobby, and out into the sand to watch the sun rise alone. I felt very much like Moana in that moment. I reflected on the walk back in Boston that led me back to my roots and to this sunrise in the Philippines. The palm trees were blowing all around me.

I dug my toes into the sand and remembered the story Olivia shared with me about how, when I was an infant, she would bring me to the beach every morning. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath in as the brilliant splashes of color lit up the sky around me.

I also wanted to cry as I tried ignoring the trash piled up on the shores and the stray dogs walking by me. I tried not to remember the small child holding the bars of the shack we rode by in a car on the dirt roads.

I focused on gratitude.

I focused on the kindness of the people around me rather than the poverty. These people had so very little. This trip had most definitely taught me a lesson on perspective and it was time to go back to Boston.

I’m sure you can imagine the return trip back to Boston was no less arduous than traveling to the Philippines. I wisely asked for a wheelchair in the airport this time because of the humidity and my condition to avoid a dizzy spell while waiting. I used Mel Robbins’ 5 Second Rule many times on the way home as well to lessen my anxiety. Even in moments when I was dripping in sweat on the tarmac in the Qatar heat, I held firm to my mission to spread compassion. I also drank more water than I probably ever drank in my life.

As Dorothy once said in The Wizard of Oz – “there’s no place like home.”

I truly appreciated the meaning of those words for the first time as I fell into my bed in Boston. I felt so tired, but more than anything, I felt so very brave. 

Headshot of Gretchen LearyGretchen McIntire (Leary) is an autistic woman who is challenging herself to “be brave” in her everyday life. From the smallest brave moments to conquering her biggest fears, Gretchen is sharing her journey each month hoping it inspires even one more person to choose to be brave too. Gretchen is the author of the children’s books Really, Really Like Me and The Quiet Bear, a motivational speaker and founder of the Breathe Boston Autism Project. Read more of her essays on Geek Club Books and follow her on Instagram @gretchenleary.


Read more articles on “Traveling the Spectrum Way” in Zoom Autism Magazine, Issue 16:

Cover Story

Feature Stories

Big Question

What Coping Skills or Accommodations Help You When Traveling?

Our Columnists

Discover more Zoom Issues:

What does Zoom have to do with Geek Club Books nonprofit mission?

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