Autistic Travel Anxiety

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Autism and travelling may not strike people as the most likely bedfellows. And it’s rather easy to see why. Travelling is like experiencing the outside (NT-dominated) world on steroids. It tends to combine many of the aspects of the world that autistic people find most anxiety-producing and challenging, all in one intensely concentrated package from which it can be hard to escape: sensory (over-)stimulation, social contact (especially with strangers, new acquaintances, small talk, etc), the need for planning and organisation, the ability to cope with change and unpredictability, the need to be flexible, the need to have a certain amount of energy, and so on. In fact, the very pinnacle of the travel experience (at least certain types of travel, perhaps more on the adventurous side of things) is often defined by assertions to “get out of your comfort zone”, “meet lots of new people”, “embrace uncertainty”, “expect the unexpected”, “try roughing it”, “try this new thing” – all things which don’t exactly scream “autism-friendly”.

Of course, there are many different forms of travel and it is definitely possible to avoid certain aspects, maximise other aspects and generally design a travel experience that is more autism-friendly than not (whatever this might mean to you). However, there’s no doubt that this in itself can pose a massive challenge. Because of the nature of travel, there are always likely to be at least a few things which don’t fit that comfortably with us (as is the case with everyone, of course – it’s just likely to be more things and at a more intense level for autistic people), even with the most carefully-crafted adventure.

At this point, I also want to mention that autism has a lot of stereotypes surrounding it. Not all of these (or many, or even any of them) apply to all autistic people, and certainly not all of the time, across all contexts. Even if an autistic person does conform 100% to the stereotypes of preferring to be alone, needing a low-arousal environment and an unchanging routine (among other things), they may decide that they want and are able to change all this up and make sacrifices for a period of time in order to reap the benefits that travel can bring.

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My relationship with travel

My own thoughts and feelings about travel are quite complex and conflicted. In fact, I have something of a love-hate relationship with it. I grew up in the privileged position of travelling quite frequently and widely with my family as a child and teen. Then I embarked on a series of my own adventures in my late teens and early twenties, largely within the context of studying Geography, French and International Development at university. My Dad is a keen traveller and I think this had an important impact on me in terms of fueling my love for travel, one I’m very thankful for. I grew up seeing him reading travel brochure after travel brochure, watching holiday programmes and hearing about the various exotic places he’d been. To this day, I get excited thinking about all the places in the world and what it would be like to visit them, and my bucket-list has become overwhelmingly long as a result. To a large extent, I feel that the travel bug is in my blood and relatively stuck there, for better or worse.

Then I found out I was autistic. In the years since I slowed down where travel was concerned (especially in terms of independent, longer trips). I became “more autistic” (see this post for an explanation of what I mean by this), more sensory sensitive and more anxious about venturing out to new pastures alone (not that I hadn’t felt anxious before – far from it). I needed time to process my diagnosis, learn about autism and myself, and connect with a new-found community. I still need and want to dedicate most of my time and energy to these things. However, the more time has gone on, the more I’ve felt the pull of other parts of my identity and my past interests and passions – with travel being prime among them.

In general, I feel conflicted by a pull to indulge the part of me that needs/wants sensory calm, plenty of alone time, a predictable routine and lots of special interest time, versus the part of me that craves newness, stimulation and adventure. All of these things are me, and all of these things are related to my being autistic (yes, including the craving for adventure!) This is because my autism is all of me, not one part or appendage, it informs every single one of my perceptions, thoughts, feelings and experiences. And yet sometimes, I do feel as though I have two different people or brains inside my head pulling me in opposing directions. Sometimes it can be quite alarming how quickly and easily I can shift perspectives and change my mind about things – even about decisions I thought I was 100% certain about.

I think the answer, like so many thing in life, is balance. The question, though, is where is that balance to be found? I need a bit of newness and adventure in my life – and travel is a great way to get that. But mostly I need stability. I think most of the difficulty lies with forcing myself out of that stable safe comfort zone when that is where I spend most of my time. After all, the more you are in your comfort zone without stepping out, the harder it is to get out, even just for short visits. It is always the transition out that is the hardest. I find that once I am out it is not so bad.

So what is the point of this post? Well, as I describe below, I am currently facing the prospect of my first solo trip abroad in 4 years, the first since my autism discovery. I feel I have changed a lot since my last solo trip (which was to North America) in 2015. For example, it seems astounding to me now that I did this trip without my noise-cancelling headphones! I rarely step outside my front door without headphones on these days.

For the other autistic people out there who have a requirement, need or passion for travel, combined with stress and anxiety about doing so, the below might help with how to move forward. It will cover the three main areas I have been struggling with (and that others might struggle with too): (1) travel indecision (whether you want to go in the first place, and whether it is a good idea for you to go), (2) identifying sources of travel-related anxiety, and (3) practical coping strategies if you do decide to go ahead (update: #3 will be covered in a separate future post!).

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To go or not to go? Dealing with travel indecision

A few weeks ago I booked to go on a sightseeing trip to Central Europe for 10 days in early May. I thought about where I wanted to go, when and (the all important) why. I carefully weighed the pros and cons. I planned a route and rough itinerary. I booked all of the transportation and most of my accommodation. And then a couple of weeks later, having done all this planning and booking, I “decided” that I no longer wanted to go.

I’ve put “decided” in quotation marks because it wasn’t really a decision. I can have quite a lot of trouble when it comes to making decisions, especially lately. Really, it was more a gut feeling of anxiety, dread and discomfort, one that I was rather reluctant to have to live with for the next few weeks (and especially in the few days leading up to the trip, as well as during the actual trip of course). Since that day of quite suddenly getting cold feet I’ve been wavering back and forth, unable to come to a final decision about whether or not to go ahead. My departure date is fast approaching. It’s about a month away. This may seem like plenty of time to some, but I’m the sort of person who needs and likes to have a lot of time to get mentally and physically prepared for travel.

A difficulty with making decisions is something that quite a few autistic people seem to grapple with. This is one reason we often rely on routines, which eliminate the need to constantly make a series of small decisions about our day-to-day living. It seems that a similar sort of difficulty might apply to bigger decisions as well. I realise that the decision to go travelling isn’t the most life-changing one (at least not for a small rather spur of the moment trip like this), but it is pretty big in my mind right now. The decision of whether or not to go will have a huge and determining impact on the next 10 weeks of my life. And from my perspective now, this seems like a big deal, even if in the scheme of my entire lifetime it will likely work out to be rather minuscule.

Anyway, some autism-related things which I think can contribute to difficulty making decisions in general (for me at least) include the following. I think some of it stems from executive functioning issues, some from alexithymia, some anxiety and perhaps some with balancing internally vs. externally derived wants and priorities.

  • Having quite a logical and detail-oriented mind. This can mean that I tend to see a lot of the variables and potential consequences involved in a decision – perhaps too many, and all from a logical perspective. A list of pros and cons often turns out to be quite balanced with each side equally valid and compelling, which leads to grid-lock. Perhaps most people take emotions into greater account. Whilst I do have strong emotions in relation to big decisions, they can be a bit vague, difficult to identify and explain, impossible to quantify and measure, and hence ultimately hard to act on.

  • In addition to the above, I can also have a difficulty holding all of the relevant points to consider in my head at once. This is why writing them down helps. (But then inevitably the list ends up being quite long and also difficult to consider as a whole.) It is as though I have compartmentalized decision-making processes in my head for different aspects of the decision and have difficulty integrating everything together to come to an overall position.

  • Anxiety can also cloud the decision-making process. In contrast to the above, having strong negative feelings – especially if they are hard to pinpoint and explain – can overpower a logical cost-benefit approach. Something may seem like a good decision on paper, but it may just feel totally wrong. For an autistic person, anxiety in relation to travel is likely to be higher and so perhaps more likely to cloud or influence decision-making. And this can actually go either way. It could be that having the knowledge anxiety may be preventing us from doing something could sway us to do it (which may or may not end up being the best decision).

  • Feeling overly pressured (even without any actual external pressure, the pressure can be entirely internalised) to travel because of expectations and associations. For example, travelling might be seen as a sign of a person’s “normality”, ability, competence, “coolness”, dynamism, worldliness, even sociability, and so on. For myself, this is something I have internalised a fair amount. I have internalised the belief that travelling is a very worthwhile thing to do, to the extent that I actually think this to be true. Perhaps it is true. The reality, though, is that it is subjective. Markers of success and wellbeing should be specific to the person concerned. The problem is that societal markers of success can hold a lot of sway over us. Where does autism come into this? Well, obviously, the above is something that applies to everyone. But some autistics may be more at risk of being swayed by external pressure, and for the worse. There are perhaps two reasons for this. First, what we may need/want for wellness and satisfaction in life is likely to be a bit different (or at least achieved in a different way) to the neuro-majority. So internalising majority views could end up being more out of line with our own self and hence more detrimental than it might be for an NT. Second, some of us are naturally quite compliant, people-pleasing, and eager to fit in. Indeed, some of us have been explicitly taught to be this way through behavioural training. This may compel us to do what others are doing or to try to live up to the values that society holds in high esteem.

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Weighing the pros and cons of a trip

The standard advice for decision-making is to list and compare pros and cons. This is what I did before booking. The pros list came out stronger, which is why I ended up booking. But now, looking back I realise that my weighing of the options was largely based on logic and “what makes sense”. The problem with pro/con lists is that it can be hard to take emotion into account and assign it accurate weighting. For example, you could come up with 100 pros and minimal cons, and yet be left with an overriding feeling of “this is wrong” or “I just don’t want to” – something which can be hard to quantify and rationalise in such a list.

My gut feeling is that I no longer want to go on this particular trip and when I think about cancelling I feel a huge wave of relief. In this sort of situation I’m not sure whether it’s best to go with your gut or with what is the “rational” response (to not waste money, to not “give in” to the anxiety, etc). In other words, I’m not sure whether I’ve actually changed my mind and come to the conclusion that this is no longer the best decision (from a rational perspective), or whether it is just anxiety influencing what I think I want to do. Trying to remind myself of why I wanted to go in the first place might help clear this up bit.

Unfortunately I chucked out my list of pros and cons after I (thought I’d) made the decision to go (I was that certain). I will briefly try to replicate it here from memory. This list is fairly generic and can be applied to others who are thinking about the potential benefits and drawbacks of travel. 

Pros:

  • See and do new things. See visually beautiful things (architecture, nature, art, etc). Stimulate the senses and mind. Have fun. Get new perspectives. People watch and see how things are in other parts of the world.

  • Have a break from home and routine. Come back feeling refreshed and motivated to return to normal life. Memories, stories, photos, videos.

  • I feel travel is something that is worthwhile, beneficial and something I want/should want to do. I like the idea of travelling more in future, and so this trip would be a step in the right direction. In this context, not going (when I don’t really have a good reason besides “it makes me anxious”) might set a bad precedent for the future given my ambitions.

  • A challenge to see how well I cope. An experiment to see where my limits lie now (because they seem to have changed since a few years ago). Hopefully, a sense of satisfaction and increased confidence upon completion.

Cons:

  • Anxiety in the preceding weeks, and especially days. Very high anxiety the day before, on the day, and perhaps at various points during the trip, especially at the start. (On the other hand, I’m not sure if I might be overplaying how anxious I might feel during the actual trip, because I find anticipatory anxiety is the worst part.) For specific sources of anxiety, see below.

  • My excitement and motivation for the particular places I am going is not huge. (This is more an “interim” trip, because I can’t go where I most want to at this current time.)

  • Financial expense

  • Time out of routine work and projects – in terms of time needed for preparation, for the actual trip, and for recovery

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Sources of autistic travel anxiety

I’m feeling a lot of generalised anxiety about my up-coming trip and am having difficulty pin-pointing why specifically. So I decided to make a list of what I think is behind my anxiety. It’s not hugely specific, and broad enough that others might be able to generalise it to their own situation. Most of the points apply to the actual travel experience, rather than pre-departure which admittedly can also be stressful. Obviously, you don’t have to be autistic to experience any of these. In fact, travel anxiety is hugely common – a search on YouTube revealed endless videos on the subject. Still, all these things are likely to be more common and heightened among the autistic population, as they are in everyday life.

  • The shock of everything being new and routine being almost 100% thrown out of the window.

  • Sensory stress, particularly sound (I am visiting a series of noisy capital cities), and especially given my heightened sensitivity at this point in my life.

  • Social stress: I hate talking to strangers. I dislike and am bad at small talk. I don’t like unexpected interactions. I struggle to communicate comfortably when there is background noise. I get exhausted from seeing and being surrounded by people for long periods. I don’t like queuing or crowds.

  • Organisational stress: Navigation and the risk of getting lost. Being on time and the risk of missing connections. Planning sequences of activities for each day. Needing to write lots of things down and juggle various documents and papers. Doing all this in the context of newness, sensory and social stress.

  • The unexpected. Even if nothing unexpected ends up happening (and based on past experience, it will, and when you least expect it), I experience an almost constant background fear that anything could go wrong at any moment.

  • The (admittedly small) risk of something real really going wrong (e.g. injury, attack, meltdown, harassment, being badly delayed/stuck/seriously lost, losing important things, etc)

This list is specific to me and my particular upcoming trip to Central Europe. Other people might have additional anxiety about things like using public transport, flying, airports (which – perhaps rather perversely for an autistic person – are places I actually love!), getting ill, getting lonely, and so on. Also, if I was going to the developing world I might add things to my list of worries like: creepy crawlies, getting bitten/infected/seriously ill, homesickness, culture shock, language barrier, perhaps greater risk of harassment or exposure to danger, and so on. 

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UPDATE!  (early May)

I actually decided not to go ahead with this trip after all. I think it was the right decision because since cancelling I’ve felt a huge amount of relief and little to no regret whatsoever. This doesn’t mean I’m put off travelling in the future. I’m still super passionate about seeing the world, and already have itchy feet to go certain places. Just that this particular trip, and perhaps it’s timing, wasn’t quite right for me. I’ve definitely learnt quite a lot about what I need in a trip to reduce my anxiety (e.g. travelling with someone else) and to enhance my motivation (I need to be really excited about the country or city) and will definitely keep this in mind when I make future plans.

Following on from this discussion around indecision and sources of travel anxiety, I was also going to discuss some practical coping strategies for dealing with anxiety during the actual fact of travelling. But this is a huge area, and there’s so much I have to say about it. I’ve therefore decided to leave it a while and return to this topic in a few months or so, perhaps just before the next time I plan to travel (and hopefully actually go through with it this time!)

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