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Autism Interview #106 Part 2: Katie Oswald on Travel Coaching and Advocacy

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. Last week Katie shared information about some of her significant travel experiences and how her life has been transformed through travel. This week she shared how she helps her autistic clients lead more enriched lives through a variety of activities, including overcoming some of their most common travel difficulties.

As a travel coach working to help others on the spectrum, what are some of the most common needs your clients come to you with?

Most people I coach struggle with overwhelm in airports, fear of stepping outside their routine, sensory challenges at hotels, or some combination of these.

Airports are overwhelming for everyone, but it’s even worse for people on the spectrum and others with sensory issues. What I’ve learned from years of travel experience is that navigating the airport is a skill that can be practiced and improved on, and you get better at it the more you do it.

There are resources that people can access if they are worried about flying for the first time, including Wings for Autism, TSA Cares, and their airline. If you contact these folks, there are accommodations that they can help arrange for you that can make your flight experience less overwhelming.

Three things you can do to make the experience easier on you are book a nonstop flight (assuming you are okay with the length of the flight), book first class or business and select a seat you are most likely to be comfortable in, and get to the airport really early so you don’t feel rushed.

You don’t always have to fly, though, depending on where you are going and how much time you have. Road trips, train rides, and cruises are alternative options. There are people who have traveled around the world without ever setting foot on a plane, so you really have a lot of options these days.

With accommodations, too, you have a lot of options. I’m seeing more and more places that pride themselves on being autism friendly. There are also a lot of ways to stay at a house, like CouchSurfing, HomeAway, Airbnb, and TrustedHousesitters. These are just a few options.

The flight and lodging issues are relatively easy to coach people through, but the fear of stepping outside a routine can be tougher. One thing I try to coach people on is activity selection. The mistake I see most people making is that they try to do too much. There is a lot of social pressure to “see everything” on your vacation and one up your friends on social media. This is silly and it will prevent you from enjoying your trip.

The best way I have found to reduce overwhelm at the thought of being outside my normal routine is to plan a detailed itinerary, knowing the whole time I won’t really do all of the things I plan. I identify 2-3 non-negotiable activities that I know I want to do, and the rest can be skipped if I’m feeling overwhelmed or find something that I want to do more when I get there.

If you do it that way, you have created a routine, which will help calm your mind down a bit ahead of the trip. But you also know that you can stop any time if you are feeling overwhelmed. I even review my daily itinerary the evening before and look for parks, libraries, or cafes along my route that I can stop at if I need some quiet time.

What mistakes do neurotypical autism advocates make?

Neurotypical advocates often speak for us when we don’t need them to. I know they mean well. I think sometimes people, even advocates, can forget that just because we may communicate differently, doesn’t mean that we don’t have a voice.

For example, some people are nonverbal and communicate in writing, through text to voice technology, with sign language, or any other alternative communication method. I think people are getting better at letting deaf people speak for themselves, but I don’t see the same level of respect given to autistic people who use alternative communication methods. Reminding people to pause and give us the time we need to speak for ourselves is one thing that advocates can do to help.

Sometimes even verbal autistics need a few moments to organize their thoughts before they speak. Often people interpret this as an opportunity for someone else to speak. Please don’t talk over us when we are trying to contribute to a conversation.

Autism advocates also tend to insist that we identify ourselves as a person with autism rather than an autistic person. How a person identifies should be their personal choice and not forced on them by people in positions of power. The idea that saying “autistic person” is offensive implies that the word autism, and therefore being autistic, is offensive and an insult. That in itself is offensive to people with autism. Please allow each individual to identify themselves in a way that feels comfortable for them.

I often see neurotypicals trying to stop autistic people from stimming. For those who aren’t familiar with stimming, it is the word used to describe our self-stimulating behaviors, like flapping or waving, rocking, spinning, etc. Occasionally stims can be harmful or a sign of an impending meltdown and need to be dealt with, but most often these stims are how we manage our intense anxiety and it helps to soothe us. That way we are less likely to have a meltdown.

Please get to know each individual person to understand when a stim might be a sign of trouble and when it is harmless, so you don’t try to correct behavior that doesn’t need correcting. Stimming is an important method for managing our anxiety.

I’m sure there are others, but I see these most often.

While it is important for neurotypical people to learn these things, I would also add that autistic self-advocates need to be patient and understanding with neurotypicals. I see people in the autism community getting angry and defensive sometimes, and I think this can cause people to resent us. Although I do sometimes get angry, too, I try not to lash out at neurotypicals. I understand that they do not hate autistic people and want to hurt us but are just ignorant about autism. When you see a situation that could be an opportunity to teach a neurotypical, take that opportunity to do so. If you are polite instead of mean, people will be receptive to you and willing to learn. If you are nice and they still don’t want to learn, then they are not worth your time.

What are you most proud of as the founder and Executive Director of Full Spectrum Agency for Autistic Adults?

I started this as a meetup group because of my own need for socialization and quickly realized it was a real need for many other autistic adults in southeast Michigan. Ann Arbor Autistic Adults has grown to over 100 members from all over southeast Michigan, and we just celebrated our one-year anniversary. I’m getting tremendous positive feedback from our members and the community, so I’m proud that I built something that can help so many people.

Now I’m looking forward to expanding into other cities, since we have members who are driving an hour or more each way to attend our meetups. We will be recruiting volunteers who want to learn how to facilitate meetups for Full Spectrum Agency. They can start their own chapter of the meetup in their own community, and we will provide coaching and guidance as they grow. I’m excited to help other autistic adults build leadership skills.

Full Spectrum Agency has a couple new programs we plan to launch in the Fall. We have a new program called Autism Connections that is designed for building relationships between autistic and neurotypical people, as well as a sexuality education & social skills for dating workshop series.

Those who would like to support these programs can make a donation at the Full Spectrum Agency Facebook page.

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