Travel and Autism
In the 21st century transportation has improved to the point that anybody can get to anywhere in the world in a matter of days. It takes only a few minutes to cross a town and only hours to fly from city to city. But for autistic people accessible transportation is still extremely lacking, and for many traveling can be difficult or nearly impossible.
When traveling by car as a passenger, an autistic person may experience sensory overload from the noise of driving or the blurred, quickly moving landscapes outside the window. The experience of being cooped up in a small space for hours may make an autistic person anxious, especially if they experience hyperactivity. Ear plugs or headphones are recommended for those with sensory issues from noise. Having a book, game, music, or some other form of entertainment may help reduce stress and boredom on long trips. Frequent stops may be needed to allow for leg-stretching.
Autistic drivers may experience similar obstacles. The stress of driving may lead to nervousness on the road. Autistic people who are easily distracted may have difficulty paying attention to their surroundings and may be at more risk for car accidents. Due to high rates of unemployment in the autistic population, some autistic people are unable to buy cars. Many autistic people have varying levels of difficulty learning how to drive, and some never learn this skill. People who have conditions seizure disorders are usually not able to drive until they are seizure-free for a certain amount of time. Autistic people who do not or cannot drive often find themselves relying on relatives, roommates, and friends for rides, which can be an inconvenience for both parties involved. Autistic people may be at the mercy of other people’s willingness to drive and their schedules in order to go to work, get the services they need, or even buy groceries.
Buses and commuter trains are an option for many autistic people. Noise may be problematic but can be blocked out by ear plugs or music. Bumpiness in buses and shuttles can prove to be distracting and distressing for some autistic people. Unfortunately, a lack of accessible transportation in many cities means that autistic people with other disabilities may be unable to use trains or buses. Some cities only have public transportation in certain areas, and many cities still lack any mode of public transportation.
In non-urban areas or in areas with poor public transportation, autistic people with no other mode of transportation may be confined to locations that are within walking or biking distance, which can be difficult if there are not stores, job locations, or other services nearby. Pedestrians and bikers are at risk for being hit by cars, encountering street harassment, and are more likely to be targeted for crimes than those in locked cars. In addition to this risk, some autistic people find noise from busy streets and honking cars to be overwhelming. Biking may not be possible for autistic people who experience seizures, since flashing lights in their environments and even on bikes can create seizures. Having a seizure on a bike
Traveling between cities or countries can also be problematic. Traveling by bus, trains, and cars present enough problems, but traveling by plane can be even more difficult for many autistic people. The TSA is now targeting travelers who do not behave as expected, including those who seem unusually anxious and people who do not make eye contact. The stress of waiting in line, having people looking through their things, and being patted down by TSA personnel can be stressful for any person, but can be particularly stressful for an autistic person. Because the TSA are often not properly trained to deal with traveler with disabilities and medical conditions, they are prone to misinterpreting an autistic person’s actions, refusing or ignoring requests, or even acting against TSA policy when dealing with an autistic person. An autistic person’s ordinary behavior can be mistaken for something criminal. Security or police could potentially be involved, and people judged to be a disturbance may be detained and questioned. This can greatly add to the stress of travelling for autistic people, and unfortunately there have been numerous cases in the news of misunderstandings between the TSA and people with disabilities.
Autistic people who are easily overwhelmed by sounds will likely find planes to be more stressful than any other mode of transportation. Planes are very loud, and there are times when headphones, computers, telephones, and other electronics are not allowed. At certain times people on planes are not allowed to stand up, there isn’t an option to leave the plane when it becomes too overwhelming, and the limited food options can be upsetting for those with food sensitivities. Since “strange” behavior on airplanes can have much more serious consequences in airports and on planes than in the rest of the world, autistic adults may feel compelled to keep stimming behaviors to a minimum.