The Autistic Traveler

Most people do not know that I am on the Autism Spectrum. All my life I have faced numerous challenges. At school I had a hard time making friends, using proper speech and following directions. Gradually, I made great progress when it came to meeting new people and speaking clearly. But some things are still difficult for me: interpreting social cues, processing language, and solving problems.

Martha’s Vineyard, 1997

Autistic people’s brains are wired differently and they tend to become sensitive and anxious when facing problems. They also can struggle with changes in routine. They feel more comfortable doing things in an orderly fashion. Sometimes I get nervous when there is a sudden shift in plans.

Gulfoss, Iceland. I was lucky to get a photo with the rainbow!

In spite of my challenges, however, I have found being autistic has some benefits. I can have strong passions for and great knowledge of a particular subject. I used to be obsessed with the legendary Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Broadway musicals were another area of keen interest. But the one thing that has stuck with me for years is travel.

The Bean, a unique sculpture in Chicago.

I have always enjoyed visiting new places, learning about different cultures, and researching destinations to see in the future. As a child, my family and I often vacationed in New York, Florida, and Martha’s Vineyard. But my love for traveling really began when we visited England and Iceland in 2005. It was my first overseas trip and it went so well it inspired me to see more of the world. I have visited other European countries like Ireland and Portugal, as well as different parts of the United States, from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest.

Hanging with van Gogh!

Samantha Brown’s programs on the Travel Channel greatly influenced me too. Every country she went to fascinated me and her suggestions helped me plan my own holidays. Perhaps I was following her advice when I went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It was lovely to see so many of his famous works. Of course, I remembered to buy a ticket online in advance to avoid the long lines as Samantha did in her show Passport to Europe. I owe much of the success of my past vacations to her!

The Rijksmuseum and the ‘I Amsterdam’ sign, two of the city’s most photographed spots.

Be that as it may, traveling can be somewhat challenging for me due to my disability. It is especially true when something goes wrong. Last year on my first day in Amsterdam, I accidentally lost a 4-Day pass that gave me free access to the city’s attractions and its various metro systems. I felt angry. I had bought it months in advance for $100 and considered it essential to getting around the city. I worried that my holiday was ruined and it took me a while to come up with a solution. An hour later I calmed down and decided to buy a 2-day pass the next day. I used it many times while exploring the Dutch capital and ended up having a fabulous time. When the pass expired, I simply used money out of my own pocket to pay for public transportation. I did not mind. Moreover, the incident gave me the confidence to better handle problems when traveling in the future.

A gorgeous view of Madrid 🙂

In Madrid this April, I wanted to dine at one of the restaurants close to the Museo Reina Sofia but could not get a table. There was a marathon happening nearby and all the dining establishments in the area were packed. It was a bit frustrating and overwhelming because I was hungry and did not want to wait for a table. I chose instead to look for an uncrowded restaurant. Also, I had planned to see Parque del Oeste later that day, which is in another part of Madrid. I hoped to find a quiet eatery near the park, and so I did. It was a Turkish kebab house with some empty seats, quick service and tasty food. I felt proud of myself. I was able to be spontaneous and not get worked up over a small issue. Abrupt changes in plans are common when traveling, and can be difficult for those on the spectrum. That being said, it is best to come up with alternatives to original vacation plans. They can enable autistic travelers like me to have fun in spite of all. It is not the end of the world if something minor goes wrong.

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Photo Courtesy of Ricardo Cazorla-Harisiadis. This was taken at a fun tapas bar.

Another travel challenge I overcame was traveling with a group. For most of my life I have had difficulty forming new connections. I was pretty wary of going on a full-guided tour. It was not until this year that I took a chance and traveled around Spain with a group. In one of my posts I explained how concerned I was to travel with strangers. I feared I would have trouble socializing with them. Actually, the tour was an awesome experience and I became well acquainted with my fellow group members. We got along very well because we all loved traveling and learning about different cultures. Since ‘Highlights of Spain’ was such an accomplishment for me, I was motivated to go on other full-guided tours. This November I will see Japan. I am extremely excited. I look forward to meeting the people I will be traveling with. Taking a trip with a group shows how far I have come with social interaction.

I sometimes feel I cannot live without travel. My goal in life is to visit every corner of the world, whether it be the Andes, the Serengeti, or the South Pacific. There will always be obstacles but I am sure I can manage them. I have learned from my setbacks on past trips that there is always light at the end of a tunnel. Life is too short to worry about things that can be easily fixed.

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