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Exploring New Lands & New Peoples: Travel Tips

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by Robert Sanders, Jr.
Autism Asperger’s Digest
July/August 2009 issue

Traveling has been a rewarding experience for me since the time I was a teen. I’ve enjoyed visiting new places here in theU.S.and in other countries, meeting new people, and learning the many things that travel brings with it. Plus, being a person with Asperger’s myself, it’s given me a different perspective about how people relate to each other and their social norms, when one steps outside one’s own culture.

While most of my travel adventures have been good, there have been some challenges and even some clashes. Asperger’s Syndrome has inherent social challenges that impact our ability to plan, organize, and deal with different people, different social rules, and the frequent unplanned interruptions that are common to travel. However, I’ve never let AS prevent me from venturing out. With some forethought and planning, most trips can be successful, interesting experiences.

Travel Tip #1. Travel “rules” vary from city to city, country to country. Watch what your fellow travelers are doing and follow suit.  

The very first time I traveled toMexico, at age 17, I took a Trailways bus. On the way I stopped inDallas,Texasto visit relatives. The bus arrived at the station near midnight. I got off the bus and went to the bus side to claim my baggage, as I’d often done other times when traveling by bus. The suitcases were being unloaded, and as soon as I found mine, I began to grab it, only to be met with the baggage man yelling at me not to touch the bag! I told him it was my suitcase, produced my claim ticket to prove it, yet he got real haughty with me. I swiftly picked up my bag and started to walk away, my growing anger starting to show. How dare he try to prevent me from claiming my baggage! He yelled out some threats, I kept on walking into the station, and then I heard some lady shout, “Call the police.” Luckily my cousin was waiting for me in the station. I told him what happened, and that the police were on their way. He looked at me dumbfounded as to why the baggage man had raised such a fuss. When the police arrived, my cousin, who was 6’3”, talked turkey with that officer. “Now look here officer! All Robert was doing was claiming his baggage. Since when is that a violation?” We both learned that night that at theDallasterminal, bags can only be claimed inside the station at the counter. Who knew? I am very grateful my cousin was there to help me through that confusing situation and rescue me from the police that night.

Where were the signs posted telling us to claim baggage inside? Why didn’t the bus driver warn us? That situation and my difficulties with communication under such pressure put me in danger with the police! I was entirely right to claim my baggage by the bus side, but the procedures there were different. Had I waited just a few minutes and watched what other bus riders were doing, I could have prevented that disturbing experience. Watch, listen and learn!

Travel Tip #2. Try not to make assumptions about what is “right” to do. Instead, ask questions…even when you think you know the correct answer!

This travel tip is especially important to follow when you’re in a foreign country. What is “right” to do in theU.S.may be wrong to do in another country. Other countries have social rules that don’t even exist in the U.S. Always ask other passengers what you are supposed to do, and see if they know more than you do. If you can’t get good information from passengers, ask the bus driver, train ticket agent, or a flight attendant or hotel clerk.

I was more fortunate in my travel experiences years later, at age 30, when boarding a train in Paris, France. I happened to hear a horror story two years earlier of some guy who had bought a ticket fair and square, but didn’t know he was supposed to get it hole punched in a certain way before boarding the train. When the ticket agent made his rounds checking to see if all passengers were paid up, he accused this poor soul of riding for free…and beat him up on the spot – even gave him a bloody nose! Shame on that ticket agent! Good thing I knew that story however, or I would never have known to do such a thing as get my ticket punched before boarding the train. In all other situations I’ve know, the agent makes his rounds and hole punches the ticket onboard, once the train is already rolling. No one in theParis train station ever told me or warned me of the procedure. I just thought to ask because I happened to know that horror story.

Travel Tip #3. Make lists to keep yourself organized!

Back in my college years, I traveled out West several times and even traveled “down under” toAustraliaandNew Zealand. They were wonderful trips, but on some of them (especially my earlier trips) I would always invariably forget some backpacking or camping item. A few times, not very far down the trail, I would have to turn around and go back to my car for the forgotten item. Finally, after being on a hike for several days, I realized everything had gone smoothly, and I hadn’t forgotten anything! When I reached my car at the end of the hike, I took pen and paper and recorded everything in my backpack while I unloaded it: every item in every pocket and compartment. That list proved very helpful in subsequent years of travel. I’ve never had to return to my car for a forgotten item again.

List-making proved such a great idea that I also made a detailed list of items to take with me in my car or truck whenever I travel, right down to every tool, wrench, screwdriver, even the socket sizes. That has proved helpful, as well.

Travel Tip #4. Flying is no joking matter.

Personally, I’ve done very little airline travel unless I’m traveling overseas. Within North andCentral America, I would rather drive or take a bus, but that’s just me. Having a complete list of items prohibited for travel, and which and what types of items are prohibited in hand luggage, but can go with the checked baggage instead, is invaluable, especially in these days of heightened airport security.

As you go through security, try and go with the flow like everyone else. Try not to stand out or do anything socially unexpected. If you do, you risk being pulled aside and interrogated for six hours, like a friend of mine from Tennesseewas back in 2002. By all means, don’t joke about anything, much less mention hijacking, a gun, a bomb, or Cuba, for example. Words like those are taken far too seriously by airport authorities. You will be called aside.

Common sense goes a long way when en route to your destination. Be prepared for things like flight delays with reading material, hand-held games, snacks, etc. to occupy yourself. If noise and visual commotion taxes your sensory systems, be sure to travel with headphones, earplugs, calming music or scents, sleep masks, anything that can help you deal with the added stressors of airports and flying.

Travel Tip #5. Have fun!

My travels have given me so many opportunities to meet new people, form friendships, explore new countries and cultures, and learn so much about history, politics, customs, ethnic foods, and different religions. Travel can be educational, invigorating or relaxing (depending on your schedule!) and a rewarding, enriching experience. Keep an open mind and don’t be too regimented in your thinking. Sometimes going with the flow ends up bringing unexpected, and very pleasant surprises!

Robert Sanders is a person on the spectrum with AS. He is a writer of books and novels and likes to travel in his spare time. He has written two books on autism: Overcoming Asperger’s: Personal Experience & Insight, and On My Own Terms: My Journey with Asperger’s, which is also available in Spanish.


Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2009. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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