Firmly out of lockdown, work travel has been on the rise, and I’m increasingly finding myself on trains and staying away from home. Whether this is an afternoon client meeting, a team away day or perhaps travelling further afield that involves an overnight stay – these all involve using public transport and being in unfamiliar places. Your work travel may even involve going abroad or being on a client site for a few months.
Whatever your position, even if you’re travelling for non-work reasons, this blog looks at why this may be especially challenging for autistic people, while also providing some advice on what can potentially help.
Firstly, why is travelling so different for an autistic person?
Well, any change in my day-today routine is monumental and takes me a great deal of processing time to cement the change in my mind, let alone then in practise. Additionally, the whole notion of using public transport can be unpredictable; with crowds of people, new noises, smells and other factors that I cannot control. I find the external environment to be so saturated and stimulating, that to combine that with the stress of travel, and the fact that anything can change or go wrong, can literally be enough to prevent me from going in the first place.
And that’s also a good place to start: do you need to make the journey? Can a video call be made instead, or can the trip be combined with another meeting later on, ensuring that only one visit takes place? It’s not always necessary to do that work trip.
I personally encourage myself to make these visits, as I learn a lot and feel it enhances my relationships with colleagues, and I have a better sense of the work that I’m doing.
I’m essentially more involved, which is something that having a video call doesn’t always achieve. Travelling off-peak can be another option to reduce travel anxiety, even if it involves missing a part of an event or meeting. It’s worth exploring the alternatives and potential adjustments.
Another big struggle I have is with my navigational skills. Those with a co-occurring conditions like dyspraxia or a learning disability may be more likely to be affected by this. Anywhere new, I manage to frequently find myself lost. Maps don’t help me as I struggle with knowing which direction I am currently standing in and heading in, even when I find specific landmarks around me to help with this signposting.
Navigation is disorientating, and because I’m already in such an anxious state, this means that following the simplest of maps, or any type of logic in fact, is completely unavailable to me. I do find that being in a calmer state helps me take a step back and find alternate options, and achieving this calm state is something that I will continue to work on. As you know, these things are all a work in progress.
Sensory issues are probably my most challenging
I find myself bombarded with intense smells of food, drink and people, all of which are ever-changing as everyone moves about. And then there’s music being played through headphones too loudly, announcements on the tannoy, the screech of the brakes, the toilet door opening and closing, intermittent lights going on and off and the changing light and scenes from the landscapes.
I can’t control the temperature as doors open and close, the air con on or not. And as well as the sensory landscape, there’s the spatial awareness issue, which I find more of an issue on the London underground. I easily knock into people, their bags and legs, and I read too much into someone’s facial expression, as I try to decipher if I’ve offended them by accidentally touching them, or their property, as I’ve boarded the carriage. It’s harder to notice these things if it’s my own rucksack that has then touched someone else’s property. There really are an avalanche of things to consider.
So hopefully by now you have a clearer sense of why travelling for work can bring up a lot of anxieties and uncertainties for an autistic person
What can be done to help make this easier?
Prepare: I find preparation to be key, and this helps empower me as I know there are certain things I can control. I always pack layers of clothes in my backpack, my fully charged headphone, tactile clothes to help both focus and distract me, and anything else that I need for this particular trip. I will do a practise run to the station, where I can. But I find what helps me most is to not hold back in terms of packing what I need, depending on how I’m feeling. For example, a time when I was really struggling with my mental health, I ended up packing my entire duvet for a two-night stay in a hotel. No joke. It helped tremendously as I slept so well, and for me, decent sleep really is such a core foundation to get through the day OK. So do think wide and not be held back in terms of what can help you.
Ask: Utilise the staff at the station, accommodation, or wherever else you’re going. If there’s something that will make your stay easier at a hotel, it’s worth asking to see if it’s a possibility beforehand, or even checking to see exactly what the room includes. I’ve phoned and asked hotels for the quietest room, where possible, and this also helps alert them of your needs more generally. You can ask staff to support you with booking into a lounge before you travel, to have a quiet space, or with organising a taxi if you’re someone who gets stuck with directions or finds booking anything difficult. These are all examples of reasonable adjustments given that this is a work trip.
Discreetly tell: There’s the ‘Just a Minute’ (JAM) card and ‘Sunflower lanyard’ you can order and carry – both are schemes that enable you to discreetly tell others that you need extra time and understanding, without having to verbalise it yourself. And that’s the key part really, for when you are already feeling overwhelmed, having to then explain to someone that you need their patience, or simply space, just isn’t always readily available. These schemes recognise hidden disabilities, with the Sunflower lanyard being a globally recognised symbol. If you’re travelling on the London underground, then you also have the 'Please offer me a seat' badge to make it simpler to let other passengers know that you need a seat. I appreciate that people don’t always see it, though you can still use it by pointing at it, and hopefully that’s enough to communicate that you need their seat.
Recover: Planning in rest and recuperation time after your trip is absolutely crucial, and in fact just as important as the pre-planning stage. And this step regularly manages to catch me out. Especially when my journey or work trip has gone well, I forget that I need a day off. Or if I am having to work, then to have a no-meeting day, or to do some very light work instead. If there’s the option to work from home, I always take it, and if I’ve had a team away day, then I will always book the next day off. You will know from experience what works best for you, and whatever that looks like, it’s worth making those adjustments beforehand.
Travelling for work can bring a definite sense of variety to your regular working pattern, and however you may feel about, it’s worth focusing on the positives that the opportunity is creating for you.
Because once you’ve done all your planning and prep work, it’s what you will gain from travelling for work that is the ultimate aspect that really matters. It’s sometimes too easy to get lost in negatives, so do try to use the gains as an anchor point and focus back to these points.