Travelling With Autism

Travelling With Autism: Flying and Airports

It’s been awhile since any of us have been able to fly or spend a lot of time in airports, but when everything starts going back to normal – or whatever the new normal becomes – then I definitely intend to go to places that require both.

I hate both airports and flying, I’ll say that right away. I have claustrophobia and being locked in a seat in a giant metal box hurdling through the sky miraculously not hitting any of all the other metal boxes also hurdling through the sky at the same time, it just isn’t my cup of tea.

It is, however, practical and quite a lot faster than say travelling from Europe by train to for example China, only to get on a big metal box and sail to Japan. If I want to visit Japan again, and trust me that I do, then flying is necessary. Other places will require it of my as well, so I accept it is an evil I have to get through sometimes to get to the really good bit.

Relaxing sunset seen from the airport.

Now, it’s important to remember that what you really need to do is figure out what works for you. It can be different from what works for me, but you can still use the same techniques I have used to figure it out.

Flying in Europe is not more than a few hours and therefore I had no idea how I would react the first time I went to Japan on holiday back in 2008. The flight was a connected flight, but I still had to fly more than 12 hours in one go. I had never tried that, but on the brief flights I had been on before, it hadn’t been a big problem. Yes, it had been uncomfortable, but I had been okay.

Let me tell you, I will never do that if I can avoid it. I am not sure anything is worth that. I started struggling already after eight hours – and when I say struggling you have no idea. I felt like I was going mad, I couldn’t sit still, my entire body hurt, I was nauseous, had a headache, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t relax. It was a full-blown meltdown which meant that every sound, every smell, every touch was pure hell and torture. After ten hours I thought I was going to die – no, I wanted to die.

I survived by rolling myself into a ball and listen to one album on repeat for several hours. It had to be as loud as possible for me to drown out as much of the world as possible.

What I learned from this is not that flying is horrible, but that direct flights are never going to be my thing. I prefer connecting flights, because it breaks up the journey into parts and even if I can only run from one end of an airport to the other end to board my next flight, I still get to move my body and sometimes I even get some fresh air if the transfer is outside.

I am sure some prefer to have as little connecting flights as possible, but I always try to break the journey into at least two parts. It simply makes flying easier, especially because knowing my limit, which is eight to ten hours, means I can plan my journey accordingly and thus eliminate a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety.

If you don’t know your limit, then don’t be afraid to find it. Don’t go out and intentionally look for it but be prepared that one day you may find it. When you find it, write it down or make a note or something, just make sure you remember it and be grateful. Be grateful, because knowing your own boundaries means you can respect them. We should never be angry at our boundaries but appreciate them because they keep us safe. Some boundaries can be pushed, but that should never be done with force – do it with love.

Sometimes, I have had to spend a long time in airports and then it can be a little problematic. Some airports are difficult for me to handle and I avoid them, but others are great and comfortable and choosing the same ones again and again makes me feel even more comfortable there. I was in one airport where the smog from outside made the air inside smell weird and it didn’t feel good to breath either. Safe to say I’ll be avoiding that airport in the future. Fresh air is very important to me, it’s one of the things I struggle with on flights. In my experience the air on most aeroplanes gets increasingly thick or heavy as time goes by, making breathing more difficult. I was also in a wonderfully clean airport once. The air was great, the smells clean and the noise level quite low compared to the amount of people there. When I was there the second time, I found some wonderfully comfortable chair/chaise longs and spend the night half-sleeping in one of those.

I found a very isolated place to sleep.

Time of day can also be important. I prefer late night transfers because there are less people in the airports. Shops are often closed, but there is always some way to get a drink or something to snack on either from small convenience stores or vending machines.

I’ve added a small guide to help us all remember how to use a vending machine. I found this guide in Narita airport a few years ago and couldn’t resist taking a picture of it.

Now that all doubt as to how to use vending machines has been removed, I’ll continue on.

My most important advice here, however, is be prepared. Make sure you know what time you’ll be in the airport and how long, make sure to figure of if shops are open if there’s something you might need and make sure to see if there’s a lounge or somewhere else you can rest while you are there.

Especially, if you have to spend the night there, know the layout. Know what you are getting into. I spend a night in an airport without any preparation and I spent all night searching for a place to relax and the gate I was supposed to go to in the morning. I finally had about an hour I could relax in the morning, but by then sleeping was out of the question. I also don’t like sleeping if there are too many people close by, so I bought a cup of coffee and pretended to be awake.

When you know where to relax and where to sleep, then you can quickly get a good spot and chill until then morning. The picture below is from one such night, where I after spending a peaceful night at the airport got myself some morning coffee and felt pretty ready for my next flight. I slept that night on chairs like the ones on the picture. It was not great, but better than you’d think.

So, to recap:

  1. Be ready to find your own limits and boundaries and respect them. Don’t be afraid to test yourself, but don’t ever force yourself or put pressure on yourself. Push limits gently with love and compassion, never with force.
  2. Consider what works best for you: connecting flights or direct flights. Once you figure that out, plan your journey not just based on costs or time, but on how many connecting flights there are and what airports you have to transfer in.
  3. Get to know the airports before you go. Most airports have websites that describe opening hours of shops, airport layout maps, lounge areas or places that are closed off at certain times. Get to know it, maybe write down some notes or take some screenshots so that you don’t have to struggle with finding the information again when you arrive.
  4. Be prepared that it might not be easy. Yeah, this part sucks. No matter how much you prepare, you can’t prepare for everything and you need to be ready for that. Websites don’t always update their content on time and a lounge you expected to be open might not be – be ready to adapt, maybe prepare several different places you can go in case one of them is off limits for some unknown reason. Sometimes, a shop you thought would be open is closed and sometimes, god forbid, other human beings interfere and prevent whatever you wanted. We can never know, but we can prepare for most things and try and mentally prepare ourselves that things might have to be changed quickly. Yes, I know. None of us are great with that, right? I’m not, but it helps me to be prepared for the chance it might happen.
  5. Last but not least, remember why you are on your journey and try to enjoy it as much as possible.

The last one I added because to me the journey to wherever I am going have become something I actually sort of enjoy. I hate flying, yes, but I sort of enjoy the airports. I like the different kinds of food and drinks I can get, flavours from all over the world. I like the gift shops with strange trinkets, a lot often covered in city names in case you forget where you have been. I love the different sweets and the different styles in adds and architecture, I love experiencing a little bit of something that is new because it’s a place I’ve never been, but familiar because in reality, all airports are often very similar. It’s like going to Ikea, the layout is similar, and everything is pretty much the same, but something – you can’t always really put your finger on it – is different. It’s not until you see the food and drinks you can really tell how different it is.

Kai

I graduated my masters in 2017 with a major in Japanese studies and a minor in international relations. Since my graduation I have focused on figuring out who I am, because I was diagnosed with Asperger's (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and it made me rethink my life and allowed me to understand myself better. Because I have always been passionate about writing, I decided to blog about my life in the hope that it can increase autism awareness.

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