Travelling as an autistic person comes with its own set of challenges. Not only is there the usual set of vacation worries everyone gets, but there is an added stress and anxiety about leaving your usual routine and opening yourself to all those new experiences, ones that should be exciting but are instead a terrifying unknown. Add to this a fear of flying and it won’t surprise you to learn at the age of 27 I only went on my first flight three years ago. However, the ADHD in me craves new challenges and a bit of an adventure so this year I found myself on a flight to Iceland with my best friend, packed and ready for an action packed 4 days in the land of elves.
The Joys of Iceland
As countries go, Iceland is a great one for the autistically wired. Whilst a third of the country’s entire population live in the capital, Reykjavik, the city was eerily deserted. They also have the most literal surnames in the world, their father’s first name followed by either ‘son’ or the Icelandic for ‘daughter’. The entire time we were there I did not see or hear a single police car or ambulance, the roads were empty with not a traffic jam in sight, and the supermarket felt like Tesco’s at 12am on a Monday. Generally, the Icelanders have a slower pace of life and are very kind and welcoming. The language is rather hard to grasp but most of the country speaks impeccable English, a fact I was ashamed to be relieved about.
Usually I spend my holidays ambling around the city, dipping into shops and galleries, photographing graffiti and strange buildings. But Iceland had so much amazing scenery to offer we decided to really stretch ourselves and experience some of the country’s spectacular sights and landscapes. The online description called it ‘an easy glacier hike’ that was ‘perfect for beginners’, me and my best friend, who barely made it to the end of the cross country course without having an asthma attack, put our faith in this description. Nervously, we listened to our guides describe our hike and all the safety concerns. We were about to walk over the top of Katla, an active volcano due to go off any day. Soaked through before we’d even set off, for an hour we put on all our glacier hiking gear, learnt how to use our pick axes and walk in our crampons. The walk to the start of the hike nearly finished me off, with the only thing pushing me through the fact I didn’t know how to make my way back. In my head prior to our hike I had imagined a flat walk on ice, what we faced was an uphill climb. Thank God we pushed through, the views were spectacular and the sense of achievement even greater. The glacier is shrinking by 15m each year due to global warming, so it was fantastic to have the opportunity to see it before it disappears.
Of course, I’m autistic so travelling didn’t always go with ease! Below are several of my travel anxieties and how I managed to overcome them:
Hurdle 1: packing
Many of my strange travel anxieties start with the bag. Rule #1, EVERYTHING must fit in the one bag, excess baggage will not be tolerated. Either it’s in my check in bag or it all needs to fit in my backpack, this includes excess clothing and food/drink etc. If it doesn’t fit, it’s not coming. This ensures I know exactly where everything is and I only ever have to concentrate on one bag, and concentrate I must. This becomes increasingly difficult when sharing baggage with others, and usually I must give in and watch with silent tears as my number one baggage rule is broken. You would think I’m rather a careful packer, but quite to the contrary, my packing technique actually doesn’t leave a lot to be desired. Usually it’s a last minute jobby, although this year I took my own advice and started collecting and packing two months early. Nothing eases anxiety more than collecting and ordering everything repeatedly for weeks before going!
What goes in the bags is another issue. Usually an entire pharmacy to cover every possible medical eventuality; nothing makes me more anxious then being unprepared! What I didn’t pay enough attention to, and would have benefitted from obsessing over instead, was how weather appropriate my clothing was, what with Iceland being rather wet and cold in November. I am now sporting a rather painful chest and dry cough from glacier hiking soaking wet. Thank God I remembered to pack the Imodium though!
The flight bag is another matter entirely. After my first nerve wracking flight a support worker suggested making a ‘calm box’, this includes things that feel or smell good that can keep me calm; perfect for the inevitable plane crash I am always expecting to happen. It makes for some strange looks through security, but my little box, containing an old teddy bear’s ear, smelly wax tart, and tangle toy, keeps me calm and I’m pretty sure it keeps the plane in the air as well.
Hurdle 2: the airport and the flight
Surprisingly, much of my anxiety happens weeks before I’m set to fly, on the actual day I wake up on a mission, ready to face my fears. The main challenge I face is getting through security without looking suspicious, not punching the security people who then inevitably frisk me, and then walking into a human pen full of noisy people waiting for millions of other flights. Whilst Gatwick have reportedly made their airport autism friendly, Luton airport could not have been less autistic friendly if it had tried. Once on the plane I am much more tolerable, especially once the headphones are in to cancel out any bizarre noises, noises which I will need constant reassuring are not the sound of the left falangey dropping off.
Hurdle 3: the first night
To begin with everything feels too different, I’m too exhausted, hangery, and travel sick to process it, and I feel like I’m trapped with no exit. There has not been a single trip where I haven’t spent the first few hours either in a full blown meltdown or silently wishing I’d never gone away, even short weekends in the U.K. For me it’s all about transitioning, I struggle to adapt to changes however small, and being in a new foreign country scores pretty highly on my scale of change. Luckily after a good nights sleep I can barely recall why I felt so terrible the night before and I’m back to being excited to explore a new land.
Iceland was a spectacular country, one that allowed me to face many of my fears and experience something really different. It might take a week or two now to catch my breath again and recover, but it was definitely worth the adventure!