Autism Interview #106 Part 1: Katie Oswald on the Transformation of Travel

Katie, a.k.a. “The Autistic Travel Coach” is a travel consultant from Michigan. When she’s not traveling, she manages the Ann Arbor Autistic Adults meetup group, and a new nonprofit, Full Spectrum Agency for Autistic Adults that provides programs and services that assist with socialization and other activities to help autistic adults become less isolated and and lead fuller lives. She is also the founder & CEO of Oswald Consulting that works with nonprofits and social enterprises to help achieve their missions. This week Katie shared information about some of her significant travel experiences and how her life has been transformed through travel. Stay tuned for next week when she shares how she helps her autistic clients lead more enriched lives through a variety of activities, including overcoming some of their most common travel difficulties.

At what age were you diagnosed? How were you made aware of your autistic identity?

Like many women who grew up in the 80s and 90s, my autism went undiagnosed until adulthood. I was misdiagnosed with OCD in my teens, and when I read about OCD, it was kind of close to what I was experiencing, but always felt a little off. I like to read about psychology and neuroscience, so I read quite a bit about autism over the years, too. It always felt closer to my reality, but throughout my 20s and early 30s, my logic was that I didn’t want to be diagnosed with another disorder that could limit my opportunities.

After I finished college and Peace Corps service at 33 years old, I started what I thought would be a traditional career path. It took me a few years to realize that the 9-5 work week was not likely to ever work for me. I struggled a bit in my first job, but I thought I was just going through what everyone else went through in their first post-college job.

It seemed to not improve after a year, so when I got another job offer with a significant increase in pay, I thought, “Well, this can only get better, right?” But it didn’t get better and actually got worse and worse over the course of about a year and a half. I was so overwhelmed all of the time that I couldn’t handle talking to anyone outside of work. I just went home and hibernated after work and on the weekends. I rarely saw my friends and could barely handle going to the grocery store.

When I was asked to leave my job, I was relieved, but I knew I needed help. I started seeing a therapist who specializes in autism and my life got significantly better from doing that. I was diagnosed at 38 years old.

Of course, this whole experience and the reading I’ve done helped me identify and learn about my autistic identity, but I always like to keep reading and learning more about myself. I’ve learned a lot from other autistic women like Temple Grandin, Artemisia (formerly Rudy Simone), and Cynthia Kim. I recommend that other girls and young women read books by these authors, and also check out the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network.

Tell me about your work with Magezi Murro in Uganda. How did you become involved in this project? Why was it so important?

I founded Magezi Murro with a group of women in my Peace Corps village, Kiziranfumbi. I was initially doing work with a village bank that seemed to not be working well for the women in the village, so I gathered a group of women who wanted to learn basic household budgeting and saving. That grew into Magezi Murro, a Village Savings and Loan Association for women in the village. They pool their own money at weekly meetings in really small amounts and lend it out among themselves. Membership organizations like this exist all over the world in countries that don’t have good access to the formal financial system.

This was my favorite project because it was easy to see the impact it had on the women’s lives, almost immediately! Many other projects can take years to see the impact. It was also empowering for me personally because it was the first time I really took charge and planned a program on my own. I led the trainings and co-led the weekly meetings, which required me to get out of my comfort zone. But the passion I felt for helping the women in my village learn how to transform their own lives outweighed my fear. It’s one of my greatest accomplishments. The women manage the association on their own now that I’m home.

You’ve written that living with a host family in Russia helped you learn to read facial expressions and visual cues. Did this translate into a greater awareness of these cues once you returned home to the United States?

I would say that it did to some extent. In Russia, I had to rely almost exclusively on facial expressions and visual cues because, despite being good at reading and writing in Russian, I was really bad at communicating verbally. Everyone just spoke so quickly, and parts of words sounded like other words, and without grasping the context, I was just at a loss most of the time.

There are some facial expressions that are universal, and I got better at reading these in my attempts to communicate in Russia. This has stuck with me, although I don’t rely on it as much now that I’m home. But I think it still comes in handy sometimes.

In what other ways has travel transformed your life?

Travel has definitely made me more confident and independent. It’s really comforting to know that I can take care of myself and advocate for myself when I need help. I’ve traveled solo quite a bit, and sometimes I have to ask strangers for help. It’s something I would rarely do at home but learned to do out of necessity on the road. Now I’m more likely to speak up for myself in general.

Solo travel has been the greatest confidence booster of my life. It’s really empowering to know that I can survive and thrive on my own in a completely foreign culture where I know no one, when I sometimes don’t even speak the same language! 

I remember the first time I deliberately let go of control and accepted that things aren’t going to always go exactly according to plan. I noticed that other students in my study abroad group were not having a good time in Russia because they were finding fault with things that weren’t how they expected them to be. Foods and customs that were different than they were in America, for example. I watched them for the first couple of days, and I knew I didn’t want to have a bad time and spend the entire summer complaining, so I made a conscious decision right then and there that I would accept things as they happen. I accepted that when things weren’t going my way that it wouldn’t be that way forever. It would pass and I would move on. I didn’t have to let it ruin my day. This mentality got me through that first trip to Russia and all my trips after that, too. It was really liberating. I had a new sense of freedom. That way of thinking, although it’s more difficult to follow at home, has helped me to be a happier person in my day to day life.

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