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Shalese Heard, the Autistic Travel Goddess

How has traveling impacted your life as a person with autism?

Traveling has given me more confidence, expanded my social skills and brought out the best in me when meeting new people. It has indeed been a positive and enriching experience. 

What types of travel experiences do you enjoy?

I enjoy outdoor excursions that allow me to engage in sensory seeking: hiking, bungee jumping, water activities, skydiving, parasailing. I love adventure-based travel experiences. These activities allow me the solitude I enjoy, aren’t filled with crowds and noise and are engaging with nature. That keeps me closer to my special interest: anything to do with the earth, geology or geography.

What strategies, tools or apps do you find helpful while traveling?

I download airline apps. They send helpful reminders of the boarding time, our boarding passes, what to pack etc. Airport apps are also helpful in letting me know what to expect with security and airport traffic. I am a huge fan of hotel apps too because they allow me to check in and get my keys without having to deal with long lines.  When traveling to other countries, I find comfort in having a map handy, as well as a list of all of my planned excursions.

How can travel and exposure to new cultures contribute to the personal growth and development of people with autism?

Travel teaches you social skills, confidence and self-advocacy skills. Most importantly, travel teaches you to have grace and patience with yourself. We as Autistic people are very hard on ourselves when we don’t meet a deadline, when plans go awry, or when we don’t measure up to society’s timeline. Travel teaches us to let go of the pressure we put on ourselves because travel is full of changes and uncertainty. 

What are the most important factors for creating an inclusive and supportive travel environment for individuals with autism?

Flexibility with hotel and flight changes. Sometimes I come close to missing flights and hotel reservations due to executive function struggles. When the lines, noise and stimuli get overwhelming I might need to reschedule. Airports need to offer quiet hours, sensory times or even separate sensory lines for their Autistic travelers. Variety is another factor that is helpful for Autistic travelers. For instance, restaurants should offer more variety in the way food is cooked so as to accommodate for sensory eating.

How could the travel industry make travel more accessible and accommodating for people with autism?

I would like to see more travel professionals trained in Autism: flight attendants, hotel management, cruise staff, even restaurant staff. I would also like to see more flexible options offered at hotels and airlines in case someone with Autism has to change or cancel a flight due to either sensory overwhelm or executive function. More establishments (museums, restaurants, amusement parks etc.) should offer sensory hours as well.

Do you have any personal stories or anecdotes that highlight the unique joys or rewards of traveling as a person with autism?

In my final semester of grad school, I decided to take a chance and fly out to L.A. to audition for my dream job, a travel show host for the Travel Channel. It seemed illogical by all counts: I was still in school, there was no guarantee I’d make it, I didn’t know anyone in L.A., it was far from home etc. I booked my flight and hotel. As soon as I landed, I was already in love with California: the mountains, the beaches. The warm weather was a welcomed change from my snowy hometown. I went to the audition, gave it my all and met some amazing friends along the way. I ended up having dinner with them after the audition. Nope, I didn’t get the job. I honestly didn’t have high hopes of getting it. The most rewarding thing for me was that I not only checked it off my bucket list, but I took a risk for something I had my heart set on. Risk-taking is particularly hard for us as Autistic people. I’m a very literal person, so it’s usually very hard for me to take risks with no guarantee of a reward. This trip showed me what I was made of. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t disappointed by a loss. I saw more wins that losses. I learned that I’m more social than I thought. I also learned how brave and independent I was to take a trip like that solo. It was more about the experience than about winning the audition. I was finally able to see and appreciate the big picture rather than fixating on a detail that didn’t go right.

An anecdote: I traveled to Iceland one winter. I was on a mission to see the Black Sand Beach. The weather was treacherous, icy and unpredictable. I nearly had a car accident on the way.  My car spun around, alongside of a mountain road with NO guardrails. Right next to the ocean. I was fortunate that I didn’t hit the other cars near me. I eventually regained control of the car. I decided to continue the trip the next day and give myself the night off. What was shocking to me was that that didn’t faze me whatsoever. I have always had a muted sense of fear, where I don’t feel fear the same way or for the same reasons most people do. This was a moment where I realized the Autism trait of having a muted sense of fear is BENEFICIAL to me. This trait helps make my travel experiences richer because I’m not afraid to have new experiences. I’m also not easily deterred by scary experiences. What society tells me is wrong or broken about me proves to be a STRENGTH when I travel.  

What other insights can you offer on travel and autism?

Given that 85% (and counting) of the Autistic adult population is either unemployed or underemployed, travel opens up opportunities for us to create financial freedom for ourselves. First off, there are other cultures out there that are more suitable to Autistic people. Some cultures view Autistic traits as genius like rather than off-putting. Because of this, we may find it easier to find educational and career opportunities in other countries or states/provinces. Also, many Autistic people from the Western world are able to stretch their currency further in some countries. That gives us more freedom to spend on enriching experiences, our special interests and takes the financial pressure off of us. Travel is good for helping Autistic people find financial independence so they don’t have to rely on toxic systems and relationships for support.

Secondly, traveling as a Black Autistic woman adds another layer to my experiences. I either find that I have to be hyper aware of the possibility of racial microaggression I may experience as a black woman, which is often hard for me to pick up on as an Autistic person. There’s the double-edged sword of reading social cues AND the stress of not knowing when I’ve missed them as it relates to race. On the other hand, I’ve found myself welcomed and treated especially well compared to my white peers when I travel. It can go to both extremes as a Black Autistic traveler.Find Shalese @autistictravelgoddess

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