You may wonder why I openly advocate sharing having Autism Spectrum Disorder when traveling. Is it really anyone’s business? Does it make a difference? Doesn’t that leave me open to being mistreated? Why make a spectacle of myself by announcing “I’m autistic”?
Because it works – People cooperate with me and my stress level is lower than when I strain to hide my sensitivities and need for accommodation.
The decision to share with strangers that I am autistic wasn’t easy. I had a deeply profound struggle with the idea of “outing” myself as a sensory sensitive aspie. I had tried so desperately for so long to hide my neurodivergent ways. On a good day, I can “fake-out” a neurotypical by using perfectly-mimicked, socially-approved behaviors…at least, I think I do. But why was I trying so hard to please people who, pardon the expression, didn’t give a rat’s aspie about me? The answer: to protect myself. Growing up I was teased, tormented and punished for being different. I learned it was safer to mimic the socially adept then it was to be myself. It not only reduced the bullying, it was demanded of me.
Once I knew why I was different, I was able to appreciate and understand myself like never before. I was able to identify the source of so much of my inner conflict and begin to heal emotional wounds. Camouflaging is a very unhealthy way to live. (If you are interested in reading a well written article on the mental/emotional damage of autistic’s hiding who they really are, but applies to anyone camouflaging, visit https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/costs-camouflaging-autism)
Now I share that I’m autistic, particularly when I am traveling. I’m shocked by how well neurotypicals respond. I haven’t quite figured out why. Perhaps autism has become such a popular topic it doesn’t frighten them. Perhaps people appreciate being informed as to why I’m acting “odd” or perhaps they feel sympathy or pity. It really doesn’t matter why, sharing works for me and it might help you travel further and easier too.
Effectively communicating can be problematic for me, particularly when I am stressed. It’s not unusual for me to “lose my voice” making talking difficult (or non-existent) so signage is critical to expedite an embarkation process or virtually any other process that requires communication while traveling. I found that using signage helps me in multiple situations so I keep different signs available.
- When I visit shops and attractions, I use a small, plastic covered sign that I keep in my wallet or purse to show as necessary.
- When driving, I use a precautionary seat belt cover to communicate to emergency personnel any medical conditions and important contact information they may need to know. The seat belt cover is a great back-up for a medic-alert bracelet. There are many kinds available online but it’s also pretty easy to make your own. Making a custom one for yourself gives you the added bonus of using soft fabric which prevents seat belts from chafing sensitive skin.
- When traveling by airplane or cruise ship, I pull out a large sign (12″x17″ or 30cm x 43cm) I wrote with a Sharpie (permanent ink pen) on thick canvas fabric. I safety-pin it on to the front of my shirt or coat. Since air travel and cruise ship embarkation often requires several people at the same time to be informed, I wear it to smooth the process. For example, airport security has several officers who appreciate being aware of who they are dealing with – it’s their job. Wearing the big sign informs groups of security personnel and others (customs, agricultural inspectors, etc.) who screen everyone passing their station, how to best interact with me. Okay, I may look a little goofy but so what – I get through lines with minimum interference and everyone wins. And since it’s pinned to my clothes, it’s super easy to remove when I’m through all the checkpoints.
It’s an important personal decision of whether to camouflage or openly share medical conditions so that you can get the accommodations to help you travel. Bottom Line: It’s made a big difference for me and I intend to continue to use signage and request accommodations and/or assistance whenever I travel.