Aut's Thoughts

Giving you inside perspectives on the autistic mind.

Travel - Going South

autism autismblogs nannyaut neurodiversity travel Dec 15, 2022
A world map marked out in glitter and stars on a dark blue background - a glitter plane in the top right corner

I enjoy travel, I love seeing new places - but it has its challenges.


Over the years I have gotten pretty good at managing these but you can’t always foresee every bump in the road.


This was one of those times.


Apologies for the saga - but the detail matters for this one.

I had done my forward planning to cover most eventualities:


  • I had researched the best route to reach the airport, adding an extra three hours in case of hold ups and planning to arrive at the start of check-in to give ample time for security.


  • I had booked an airport lounge to wait in before the flight - so I had a quiet space to reset after getting through security and where I could easily get something to eat and drink away from the crowds and busyness.


  • I had researched my transfer on the other side and had noted the transfer bus stop and had booked overnight accommodation that had a shuttle from the airport I was transferring to. I had made sure there was a food shop open 24/7 near the hotel, because I knew I wouldn’t have the battery for a restaurant.


I had my Emergency Kit packed / organised:


  • Battery pack to ensure phone didn’t die, chargers - ditto.
  •  My trusty Loops that cut background noise a lot, foam earplugs, wax earplugs 
  • Eye Mask, if I needed to shut out visuals
  • Scarf to use as comfort blanket, tactile stim, scent barrier
  • Comfort scent on a cloth
  • Chewing gum to stimulate vagus nerve if getting overwhelmed
  • Emergency Chat app on phone so I could text if overwhelm locked off my voice
  • Support buddy on standby if I needed extra research done and my brain wasn’t working properly
  • Noise cancelling headphones to listen to music and tune out the world if needed.


I forgot how bright airports could get and forgot to put my sunglasses where they were accessible.


I didn’t get a sunflower lanyard or book disability services. I have always managed to check in and get through security by myself. I am pretty familiar with the routine and didn’t anticipate this time would be different.


The day started with a tiny slide. I had lost track of time and so didn’t leave home in time to catch the train I planned to take.


No problem - they go every half hour - take the next one - still leaves two and a half hours.


It had snowed the night before - I had forgotten the chaos one flake of snow can cause public transport in England. 


Not only was the next train cancelled, but so was my planned route for the rest of the day. My second back- up - the bus - was also cancelled due to snow.


Now there was no direct route. I was going to have to change trains several times, in unfamiliar stations. 


Anxiety started to build a little. But I had my trusty travel app - it would only delay me by three-quarters of an hour - I still had an hour and three quarters spare - just in case.


First change, get off - get to new platform - just in time to see my next train get cancelled. Check my app - that route has now gone for the day. New route needed. 


This is OK - another train leaves in fifteen minutes - only five extra minutes longer. Still have an hour and a half spare.


Train is delayed - I have lost my connection. Once again, the app comes to my rescue and identifies another connection that will work as well. So only going to lose another 40 minutes. Still gives fifty minutes spare.


Catch train - get off for transfer. Transfer is delayed and five minutes before it is due to arrive they change platforms - cue stampede of people including myself running to change platform and catch it - who knows when the next one will be. And I have two suitcases I am trying to manage by myself. I get there just in time, and a kind soul gives me a seat. My anxiety isn’t doing well, but at least the frantic dash burnt off the adrenaline - Dino brain had a built in ‘flight’.


I let my heart rate return to normal take a deep breath - it is tighter now - only twenty minutes spare. I call my travel buddy to check ahead for me - all looks fine and my flight is still good. As we are talking, the train announces they will be skipping some stops - including the one I need - in order to make up time. 


Panic monkey starts to take over now - it is feeling like I am never going to get there. Luckily, my travel buddy talked me down. Found me a new route - a better one than my app had found - that was direct and was quicker - so I gained back ten minutes.


My travel buddy talks me through the transfer, where to go, what platform I needed, times of departure. So even though this station is new to me, I don’t feel lost getting off the train and the transfer was smooth.


I relaxed. I had pretty much drained the battery and panic monkey was a little bouncy from the chaos but I was now at the airport and back on familiar ground.

Or not.

While snow hadn’t affected my flight, it had affected others - flights from all over the UK were being re-routed through Heathrow AND some Heathrow flights were cancelled.


Multiple queues of people snaked back to the lifts outside the departure halls. Inside was worse, angry, frustrated people everywhere, queues on queues and no signs and no directions as to which queue went where. 


I am now beginning to really struggle - my travel buddy can’t help here and I am struggling to see an official to ask for help - and I am also dealing with the emotional mirroring of thousands of panicky, anxious, angry people.


By the time I finally find an official, I am really struggling. Flood is kicking in so I am fighting tears, my voice is loud because I am highly anxious, and I am starting to have to work hard to form words. 


I explain I am autistic. I am struggling. I show my boarding card which says what flight and which carrier. I am told to join the queue.


Which queue? They don’t know, it’s their first day. They talk to someone else and direct me to a queue that is clearly marked for another carrier. I question it and am told it is for both.


Time ticks by. I am now well past the three hours you are supposed to allow for security. Anxiety is kicking in even more because I know, with this chaos, I would need every minute of those three hours. And I am sure this is the wrong queue but the official is gone and I can see no one else.


I reach the front of the queue and am asked to show my boarding pass.


‘Wrong queue’ - I burst into tears - Flood has broken through. 


Where is my queue?


‘Over there’ - gestures vaguely towards a number of queues. 


I am now starting to shake and am stimming heavily to keep Dino brain from taking over. 


‘I am autistic. I need help. I am really struggling now’


I am not sure how clear I was, between speech shutting down and the crying from Flood, and the multiple repeats of syllables. But I think he got that I was struggling badly because he took me straight to the check in desk I needed - no queue.


I check in - few words needed - nod - shake - hand over documents. Then the dreaded words - 


‘All sorted - just join the queue for security.’


‘WHICH QUEUE?’ Dozens of queues mostly unmarked. I am in floods of tears. I explain I am autistic and really struggling. I need clear and specific directions.


She notes autistic on my passenger notes.


She says - just turn to the right, they will guide you from there.


I turn to the right. No queue - just a barrier and an official turning people away. People who are buffeting and banging into me as they turn around. Panic monkey is now in full force and Dino brain is crashing around causing chaos. Not yet in charge but close.


I need a quiet space.


I see Disability Services and head for them. I use my Emergency Chat app - the landing page explains I am in severe overwhelm and need to use the phone to speak. I ask for quiet space to calm down. They ask if I need help through security. 


I really do at this point.

I am sat in the middle of a busy room while they sort an escort. I close my eyes and rock trying to stop the shaking and slow the Flood. A couple of people approach wanting to help but the only help I needed was peace and quiet - not the added load of engaging with yet more people.


My support approaches - they are going to guide me through. I explain, through my app, I have a safe space, the other side - the lounge I had booked - and I needed to get to it.


I start to relax a little, someone else was taking charge. Panic Monkey is still high. I am jumping anytime anyone comes too close. But - We Have A Plan - My Safe Space is now Possible.


Then comes security - my boarding pass doesn’t scan - without it I can’t go any further. Support is familiar with this. They take my phone and go print a new one. I curl up in a ball in the corner and wait for them to get back. 


Eventually they return. I am more jittery again after this last stumbling block.  I am stimming heavily to keep this side of a meltdown but it is getting close.


Just one more step to safety - the easy one -  bag check and scanner and we are through.


Except no. My support is following after me and so isn’t able to stop what happens next.


After the full body scan, I am pulled aside - they need to do a pat down. Why when they have already seen EVERYTHING on the scan I don’t know. I suspect it was my stimming that made them nervous and caused them to be suspicious.


But I know I can’t say no. I steel myself to cope with being touched. I am guided to a stand and told to hold onto the handle for support and put one foot up. 


And IT IS NOT A PAT DOWN. Despite me wearing a skirt and tights, so CLEARLY visible there is nothing concealed, the security woman proceeds to grope me from ankle, up my skirt, almost to my no fly zone. Then ask for the other leg.


I am shaking. I am crying. I want to say ‘Stop’ but my mouth isn’t working and my phone is with my scanned belongings. I grip the handle with both hands. Not for security but because Dino brain wants to fight - to beat off this woman who is assaulting me. And logic brain - and Panic Monkey both know this CANNOT happen. But if my hands get loose of the handle I don’t think I can stop Dino brain from taking a swing. 


Eventually she is done, I back away out of range to make sure Dino brain doesn’t take a swing. She follows but my support is now through and he stops her from getting closer. She is saying something about shoes but nothing is making much sense any more.  I take off my shoes and walk away from them. She then gets out a security wand to check them. A wand she could have used instead of assaulting me.


I am now angry on top of everything else. This bully put me through hell for no reason other than her own power trip. I am at a point I may not be able to fly because I am so close to meltdown and if I can’t get safe and regulate, I will not be in a fit state to fly. And I have no idea how long it is until boarding or if I WILL have time to regulate at this point.


And I can say nothing - I still don’t have my phone. My voice is in a bag with my other scanned items. The support is telling her off - he had been very clear I wasn’t to be touched - she just kept repeating she was doing her job.


Finally I got my phone back and repeated my request for the lounge and typed URGENT. Too many people, lights too bright, time disappearing before flight - in heavy overwhelm but unable to stim properly in case security decided to ground me. 


Thankfully, things went smoothly from there.


I was driven to the lounge where I had half an hour before getting to the gate. I was able to find a quiet place to shake out the overwhelm and run through my wind down routine. Still jittery and unable to speak but no longer in heavy overwhelm. I was able to ask for help through my phone and kind staff helped me get food and juice and water and a quiet spot to sleep for fifteen minutes. 


The food, juice and nap topped my battery up enough that my brain was starting to function again. So I was able to get to the gate by myself where I put my eye mask on and napped again. I left earplugs out so I could hear any calls to board.


Once on the plane, all was well. A window seat, eye mask, earplugs in, shoes off, slippers on and sleep for the entire journey.


The other side I struggled to find the bus stop - but rather than let Panic Monkey start up again because I was still low on capacity, I called my travel buddy straight away. They looked up the map - guided me to the right bus stop. The staff there helped me buy the right ticket and made sure I got on the right bus. I didn’t need to disclose my diagnosis for help. Being a foreigner was explanation enough.


And so finally safe to the hotel and from there on it was plain sailing. Check in, get shuttle timetable for the morning. Pick up food from the shop that I could eat in my room - high protein, low fat, easy digest plus fruit juice for the sugar hit.


Some gaming on the phone for calming myself enough to sleep and out like a light.


Next day was travel as it should be. Clearly signposted desks, no huge crowds, helpful staff at every section so no feeling of being lost. Window seat and sleep and finally destination reached - and reached in good shape despite the nightmare start.


This trip really brought it home to me how much environment matters - I had done everything I could from my side - I had my accommodations in place - I was using all my regulation tools to manage - and it wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.


Without external support I would never have made it TO Security let alone through it. Lack of training, understanding and support from Security staff nearly cost me my flight. And could have got me arrested if I hadn’t been able to hold Dino brain back - and it was very touch and go.


And I am a short, fat, old white woman without a stack of prejudice from others working against me.


Where the environment was good, I was a fully capable, independent adult. Without it I could barely form thought, with my protective impulse fighting to take the wheel.


Education about autism matters - where people understood - they were able to be supportive. Where they didn’t - they made the situation infinitely worse.