Alex Stratikis is a 20-something autistic travel writer, blogger and photographer. He travels the world in a bid to understand himself and this vast, interesting planet we live on. We appreciate Alex volunteering to share his experiences with our readers!
Barriers to Traveling While Autistic
A recent survey by Autism Travel, an offshoot of The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Educational Standards (IBCCES), revealed that 87% of respondents who were parents with an autistic child do not take any vacations. Figures are not available for autistic adults. The high percentage of families not taking vacations reflects the travel industry’s inability to address the needs of autistic travelers.
In effect, many travel-based companies and organizations are continually missing out on a significant portion of the potential customer base, due to their inability or perhaps their inflexibility in adopting adaptive implementations. When you consider that approximately 1 in 100 people are autistic (this figure can differ significantly from country to country, for example 1 in 44 children in the USA are now said to be autistic) then it should be no surprise that this not only creates a large financial gap in the market, but it more importantly creates a significant moral gap between the autistic community and everyone else engaging in the tourism industry.
The Travel Industry and Ableism
Accessibility and inclusivity in the tourism industry must begin with education and training for staff at all levels in both understanding and dealing with neurodiverse people. The travel industry still has a long way to go in terms of aligning its offer and performance with potential autistic patrons, and more generally, the disabled community as a whole. Because autism is an invisible disability, the challenges faced by autistic individuals can unfortunately lead to issues when dealing with others who have a limited understanding of autism.
Moreover, I believe that more awareness and understanding about autism and the ways in which it can present itself in individuals could make travel experiences smoother, not only for staff within the tourism industry, but also autistic travelers themselves. It is easy to mistake autistic behavior as ‘weird’, ‘rude’, ‘incoherent’, or even ‘aggressive’ when employees lack basic knowledge of autism.
Indeed, even the simple act of avoiding eye contact (one of the more common autistic traits) can be a source of misunderstanding for allistic (non-autistic) people. Staff training should be aimed at educating workers to eliminate such social expectations through cultivating a deeper and comprehensive understanding of autism and its traits.
Making Travel Accessible for Ourselves as Autists
There are several things you can do to have a good traveling experience as an autistic. Researching the location you plan to visit is an invaluable asset for any autistic tourist. Online searches can provide a wealth of information to help you understand more about where you are going. This way you can avoid heading off completely unprepared in relation to what you can expect from the place and its people.
Of course, any unfamiliar setting or change in routine can bring about anxiety and overstimulation for autistic travellers, but it is important to understand the benefits of travel as well to truly understand if it is in fact in your best interest to do so, and aligning with your needs and own personal development. Speaking from my own experience, my decision to leave the life I once knew to live, work, study, and travel abroad has improved the quality of my life radically.
Many of my previous spells of depression were linked to location and feeling a sense of stagnation. Only through travel was I able to begin to understand that there was a much better world waiting out there for me. One aspect of my autism is that words themselves have little bearing on me if I have not experienced something for myself or seen it with my own eyes. Hearing that things will get better or that there is a wider world beyond my existence simply did not resonate with me until I was in the position to use to face it head on and challenge everything I had known up until that point in time.
Social Expectations Differ Across Cultures
When you plan to travel to a new land, one far from the cultural sphere you have known all your life, you will find noticeable differences in social rules and expectations. This might seem like it would leave travellers vulnerable (and indeed can do depending on the circumstances), but I have found the opposite to be true for myself.
As an autistic person, it is often easy to fall outside of what is deemed the social norm. However, travel itself offers the possibility to be yourself, as being a ‘foreigner’ or ‘tourist’ thereby removes a substantial number of social pressures that any local population is met with – particularly, in areas with more significant tourist presence, or large immigrant populations. Through the apparent vulnerability, I was able to embrace myself as an autistic individual, with the need to mask around others significantly minimized in different settings. Different countries’ social expectations do not result in smooth sailing in every case, however, as there is a lot to consider when you find yourself in a foreign destination as an autistic sightseer.
Since spending time in different settings while traveling, it is now apparent to me that our individual differences are to be embraced, not feared – whether it be cultural or intrinsic (ie one’s neurotype) differences. Divesting myself from the need of adhering to social expectations has helped me to develop in leaps and bounds throughout my global journey. Keeping an open mind has aided me in accepting others from opposite backgrounds to myself, and subsequently has allowed me to find the right people I needed so desperately to surround myself with along the way – while giving those that are not, a wide berth.
Alex Stratikis is a 20-something autistic adult, travel writer, blogger and photographer with a mission to inspire and encourage autistic young people to travel whilst also working with the travel, tourism and hospitality sectors to improve their accessibility offering to attract and support neurodivergent adult – a huge, largely untapped customer base. Follow Alex at his website https://autismadventuresabroad.com, on Instagram @autismadventuresabroad, and on Facebook @autismadventuresabroad.