Saturday, August 28, 2010

Travelling while Autistic

I am back in my university town, after a long trip spanning the Pacific Ocean. Having now returned, I plan to resume blogging at a regular pace, and continuing with my feature on critiquing portrayals of autism in film, literature, and other media.
First though, I want to note something about travelling while autistic, especially across international borders. It is not easy. These days, flying is difficult enough for neurotypical travellers, but for those of us who are disabled, it takes on a whole new level of struggle, humiliation, and anxiety. My own experience is negligible, but others go through sheer terror in their effort to get from point A to point B.
During this particular trip, I left the United States to enter Canada, which led to me being exceedingly worried. I am honest to a fault when talking with strangers, but I manage to give off an air of insecurity and slyness, owing to my unwillingness/inability to make and maintain eye contact, my monotone, mumbling voice, and the shaky, jerky way that I move, even when standing still. This time went without a hitch, but other times I have not been so lucky. I've been thinking of buying an enamel pin with a phrase like "I have autism" on it, just so I have a clear indicator to them, provided they take notice.
Other things which overwhelmed me included the constant noise interference from various announcements, being in close proximity with other people, and the one I remember with the most discomfort is the fact that during one plane ride, I sat next to a fellow who was eating a sandwich that had mustard and mayonnaise on them, causing a sensory overload to my nose that left me in tears, and would have escalated if I had not come prepared: I had bought a bag of bliss chocolates at the airport, and made sure, every time the stench began to overwhelm me, to stuff a chocolate into my mouth and let it melt slowly on my tongue. The chocolate's smell in my mouth drifted up to my nose and blocked further offences to my delicate olfactory system, one every five minutes.
I know these seem minor to neurotypicals, but to someone with autism, sensory overload and worrying about public discomfort that may or may not result in a loss of control are an every day reality. Or wanting special food to fit with sensory issues, and being told you cannot take food or drink past a certain point. Or having your medicine scrutinized and your privacy invaded. Being told you need to submit to a random security check when you have issues with other people trying to touch you or invade your personal space. Being asked questions in a rapid fire fashion with no clue how to answer, especially if you are nonverbal or have difficulty communicating. I could go on and on.
Normally, on these types of entries, I try and end with a note to my fellows on the spectrum on how to best deal with the situation. The chocolate, for instance, or bringing along a comforting object, or a weighted blanket. But this time I want to stress something else, something that is often neglected: While these small comforts and steps are a good way of avoiding such trouble, we should not HAVE to go through the worries about whether our steps will be enough. Public spaces, even ones like airports, where security theatre seems to take priority over comfort and accommodation, should be held responsible to, to make their spaces welcoming to all people with disabilities. Ramps for wheelchair users and doorways wide enough for accessibility are good, but what a world it would be if ways of making people with both mental and physical disabilities feel welcome wasn't a nuisance to be ignored or begrudgingly followed, but carefully considered and applied as such! An environment where people with disabilities are comfortable is an environment where everyone is more at ease and content.
For now, it is good to be home. I consider myself lucky (and TAB privileged) that I was able to navigate my way home with such ease. Others are not so lucky though.

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