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Travel Tips as an Autistic Person

Lydia Wilkins

Insights from an autistic person on how to make travel stress-free.

A woman standing on train wearing a backpack and headphones.
A woman standing on train wearing a backpack and headphones.

This article was written by Lydia Wilkins - a writer and person with autism - to help autistic people plan for an enjoyable and stress-free journey.

Travel is a massive part of my job; I freelance, and I work for the UK’s biggest provider of accessibility information in the disability space. However, I am also a disabled woman – I am autistic, thought to possibly also be dyspraxic, and dealing with long Covid. This means travelling takes a lot of time and planning.

What is autism spectrum disorder? 

I was diagnosed as autistic two months shy of my 16th birthday; autism spectrum disorder, also sometimes called autism spectrum condition, is a lifelong neuro-developmental disability that impacts multiple facets of daily life, such as socialising and communication.

There are some conditions that often come with autism (called co-occurring conditions) such as dyspraxia and ADHD. While the statistics on this vary, they tend to be over the 70% mark

An autistic person has a sensory profile that is set against their own needs. You can be hypersensitive (as in ‘too much’) or hyposensitive (as in ‘too little’) to each of the eight separate senses. When it comes to noise, I am hypersensitive – everything is too loud, too nuanced, too big, and I have no effective filter. The hypersensitivity issues cause us pain; it is not simply an ‘intolerance’ or something to switch off. If only it was that easy.

Disability – which autism is defined as by law – is not just the universal image of using a wheelchair. The biggest issue I have is the lazy assumption that because I can talk to you, I am ‘ordinary’ and therefore not in need of accommodations. Autism has not got a ‘look’ or feel to it, yet providers of reasonable adjustments, often at airports, assume otherwise. Another assumption is that I am not able to articulate my access needs or speak for myself. That somehow, I am an unreliable witness to my own reality.  

How autism impacts the travel experience 

I find environments such as airports confusing due to my noise sensitivity (crowds of people, announcements) and because information is not always presented in a clear, detailed, and accurate manner. It’s very stressful to me when information changes at the last minute – such as a railway suddenly changing platforms, or a flight being delayed or cancelled. And processes like going through security are challenging because social expectations aren’t clearly spelled out.

Travelling while autistic: how to prepare

Accessibility has only recently begun to improve for autistic travellers, and still has a long way to go. But there are some services and programs that make things easier.  

  • The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program is a card or lanyard that discreetly signals you have a disability, hidden or otherwise, without you needing to declare it. More than 200 airports across the world, as well as public transport, museums, art galleries, and zoos, have joined the network; staff who are a part of this verified scheme are trained in how to communicate, assist, and to negate sensory issues.  

  • Some airports, such as Sydney and Melbourne, provide sensory maps of their terminals, identifying areas that have sensory levels (noise, lights, crowds) and those that are quieter. A number of airports also provide soothing sensory rooms which can be booked in advance – this takes some looking for, but their website should have all the relevant information.  

  • Many airports have started to create social stories for children who are autistic, too. Social stories are illustrated narratives that explain unfamiliar circumstances that are yet to come – such as preparing to fly from an airport – and outlining the various steps of the process. If you’re traveling with a child, this could take a lot of the stress away.  

  • Consider carrying disability aids in your handbag or backpack whenever you travel, be it for long or short haul. These can be discreetly tucked away but can be of great assistance, as well as being inexpensive. Tangles, for example are a massive anti-anxiety tool for me. 

  • Because environments like airports or train stations can be confusing, make a list before you leave of the various steps of the journey (getting to the station, changing platforms etc.), and how much time you’ll need to complete each task. 

Tips while in transit  

Having got through the stressful process of an airport, the transition of travel itself can sometimes even be harder. These are the strategies I use:   

  • When travelling, crowds of people and confined spaces, such as overcrowded trains, are often unavoidable. If you have noise sensitivity, use earplugs or over-the-ear ear defenders to block excess sounds. If using headphones or ear buds, have a specific playlist that can block out background noise, as well as act as a self-regulation mechanism.  

  • Distraction! Find a snack for your flight, such as in duty free, or bring one from home.   

  • Use fidget toys such as fidget spinners and tangles.  

  • Pace yourself for the new environment. An autistic person may struggle with change, and it can cause significant distress, contributing to meltdowns. Take the day in small chunks, and make sure you have a rest to recover at the end of the journey. Find a quiet place with a lack of stimuli.  

Every person deserves the right to travel, and freely, without having to combat the significant barriers of an inaccessible world. There are changes afoot, and it is just so exciting to see.  

Travelling soon? Consider nib Travel Insurance and get a quote 

To learn more about what’s covered, see nib travel insurance. nib Health insurance members get a 10% discount off their travel insurance.*

nib Travel Insurance Distribution Pty Limited, ABN 40 129 262 175, AR 336467 is an authorised representative of nib Travel Services (Australia) Pty Ltd (nib), ABN 81 115 932 173, AFSL 308461 and act as nib's agent and not as your agent. This is general advice only. Before you buy, you should consider your needs, the Product Disclosure Statement (PDS), Financial Services Guide (FSG) and Target Market Determination (TMD) available from us. This insurance is underwritten by Pacific International Insurance Pty Ltd, ABN 83 169 311 193. 

Image of Lydia Wilkins.

Lydia Wilkins

Lydia Wilkins is a freelance journalist covering disability and social justice issues. Her work has appeared in places such as The Independent, The Metro, Refinery 29, and Underpinned. She is also a speaker and an ambassador for AccessAble. Her first book, The Autism Friendly Cookbook, was published in 2022.