By Erin Clemens
Going on holiday. Taking a vacation. Getting away.
These are all ways to describe traveling, and they make it sound so relaxing! However, as someone on the autism spectrum, traveling can be challenging. I often struggle with changes in routine and communicating my needs to strangers. Unexpected issues aren’t fun for anyone but could quickly bring me to my knees. The fast-paced environments of public transportation might lead me into a full-blown panic attack.
And yet, in July of 2017, I successfully traveled out of state by myself for the first time.
There was a lot of planning involved. It started with picking the right destination: my extended family. (I live near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and they live in Kentucky, near the Cincinnati, Ohio area.) Just knowing exactly where I’d be staying and that I’d already been to the airports with my family in the past made me feel safer and even a bit more confident.
The staff from my autism services helped me practice taking the train to the airport. This was simple, because I already knew how to ride other trains already. We took note of where I should go once I got to the airport, especially if I needed to ask someone for help. I wrote down some of these notes on index cards and put them into my bag in case I was too stressed out to remember them during the actual trip. I needed to be sure that I had all of my comfort items in one suitcase, and that the important, irreplaceable items like my “medications wallet”, and laptop were safe in my carry-on bag. Since my friend Alysia has traveled often, she and her parents were able to help me find the right size and type of suitcase, as well as give me tips on how to pack.
The hardest part, I realized, would likely be getting through security without feeling overwhelmed by the officers telling me what to do and having to process their instructions quickly enough. I worried I’d panic or even have a meltdown. So, I researched online, and found a special service by TSA. I called them, and they helped me to set up the support I’d need to get me through the security while at the airport.
On the first day of the trip, I was nervous, but also excited.
I had to catch the first train by around 5AM and listened to music during the ride to calm my nerves. Then, I boarded the second train which would take me to the airport. Though I became a little flustered when I arrived, I was able to ask for help to find my terminal. I was relieved to get the help through security, also. This was vital! Even with that support, I was still very anxious. But I made it through!
I found my gate a few hours early. Then I became a bit nervous because my flight was delayed a few times. What worried me most about this was that I wouldn’t have enough energy to travel if it was delayed more or even canceled. But I kept in contact with my family and friends, and this helped me to stay calm. I gave a sigh of relief at the sight of the plane coming in, and I knew I was finally going to board. The actual flight wasn’t too eventful for me, as I’d been on a plane before. I made sure to bring my ear plugs designed specifically for flying (I get ear infections easily due to the pressure changes). Then, I put on my headphones again and enjoyed the flight! When I arrived at the gate, I made sure I had all of my luggage with me. Thankfully, I didn’t have to check any bags or wait at baggage claim.
My Aunt texted me to let me know she would meet me right outside of security.
I followed the passenger pickup signs, as I had remembered doing with my parents in the past. On my way out of the airport, I saw a big dry erase board with a sign encouraging travelers to share where they were going. I decided to share! I stayed with my family in the guest room that I typically would stay in when I would travel with my parents. It really helped to know ahead of time how the room was set up. However, I also brought my weighted blanket, pillow, and other comfort items just in case. I wanted to be prepared in case I had a meltdown during the trip. There was no need to worry, however. I didn’t have a meltdown at all!
My family and I had a great time, and I was able to visit with my amazing, pink-haired Grandma.
I only stayed for 4 days, but that seemed like just the right amount of time for me. Any longer, and I probably would’ve been too exhausted for the return home. My Aunt also helped to ensure that I found my terminal and received support at the airport for the flight back.
In the end, the trip was a huge success! I was not only able to spend time with the people I love, but I was also able to prove to myself that I could travel independently. Although I needed a little support along the way at times, I made it from Pennsylvania to Kentucky and back in one piece.
Erin Clemens is a woman in the West Chester, PA area who is on the autism spectrum. She is an author, a public speaker, and an autism advocate. When she is not working, she enjoys volunteering and helping others. Erin graduated from Delaware County Community College in 2019 and is interested in pursuing a career in dog training. You can follow her (AspergerSadie) on Twitter and Instagram, and Facebook, erin.clemens.58.
Read more articles on “Traveling the Spectrum Way” in Zoom Autism Magazine, Issue 16:
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