Sensory-Friendly Travel: 5 Lessons

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Does travel always mean sensory overload?  Especially for autism travel?

Urbanization, crowding, noise, mass media, social media, technology, and the explosive growth of information all contribute to sensory overload.  With so many environmental elements that affect an individual, it’s no wonder that in today’s world the body’s senses experience over-stimulation from the environment.  This is why more sensory-friendly travel is emerging and why it helps travelling for autistic persons.

We all have sensory sensitivity to one degree or another.  Sensitivity occurs when the brain and the mind do not respond in an expected way meaning that this is a highly individual sensation.  What bothers you may be totally acceptable to someone else and vice versa.

You may be wondering ‘why bother’?

Is this a bridge too far?  Do I really need the hassle?

Travelling is known to be good for health so decide a place now and pack your bags. Remember, you only live once, so start travelling to different places and enjoy some life-altering experiences.  Additionally, you do not necessarily have to travel far from home.  Simply visiting your town, city, region, state or province will uncover new experiences.

Before you take that first step, you may feel some uncertainty. Sure, you might have read some articles, watched videos, or heard a thing or two from somebody else about a particular destination. Maybe you have an itinerary set out or you’re joining a tour.

After visiting most continents, I can definitely say that every place is memorable in its own way. It’s interesting how, even if two people visit the same sights, they can have incredibly different experiences. The people, places, and things you encounter become your own.

Travelling is more than going to visit various points of interest. Instead, it’s about those unplanned moments that happen to you. For example, an interaction with a street performer, trading stories with a fellow traveller to finding an interesting combination of foods that shockingly delight your taste buds.

Travel’s unplanned events cause you to reflect on how you operate your life. They cause you to reassess your worldview. When you set foot in your home again, you feel as if you’ve come back a little bit wiser and a little bit worldlier.

Sensory friendly beach with lights hung up in tree.

Travel teaches you these five lessons whether you’re a traveller with autism or not.

  1. Your everyday problems become minuscule.

When a lack of access to clean drinking water is the accepted norm in a region, everything gets put into perspective. It makes those everyday annoyances, such as hitting the morning traffic jam, seem minor in comparison. You also realize that most problems you face in your life are temporary, and thus, fixable.

If your computer breaks down, you either get it fixed or buy a new one. Alternatively, if you lose your job, you either look for another one or find an alternative method to generate income. These occurrences can range from being minor nuisances to downright stressful.

But guess what? In some places, these aren’t even issues because they aren’t available options in the first place. How can slow internet be an issue when the internet isn’t even available? For instance, how can your child skipping homework be a problem when education isn’t accessible?

While we all have problems to be fix and improvements to make, putting them into perspective helps us appreciate how much we already have.

  1. You realize people are, essentially, the same.

It’s easy to generalize a group of people, especially if they live far, far away in a region that lies somewhere halfway across the world. When you think of the people in a country, it’s almost inevitable that certain preconceived notions will come up.

You might have heard something from friends or watched various media clippings and then formed opinions. It’s as if an entire nation of people form a single monolith, faceless and uniform. That is until you get up close.

When you travel, you get to see people on a personal level. You might even get to chat with people and learn about their lives.  Moreover, you learn that a group of people contains a variety of personalities. Each individual has their own set of hopes, dreams, and fears.

Ironically, it’s this variation in each group of people that makes you realize: people are essentially the same. Sure, every country has its own set of cultures, customs, and traditions. We are all different and yet, across the globe, all humans go through the same stages in life with their own needs and own wants.

It’s this knowledge that helps us empathize with the people we meet and an understanding of what drives others’ behaviour.

Sunset in tropical environment.
  1. You integrate new ideas into your life.

When you’ve been fully immersed in a country, it isn’t easy to simply leave it all behind and return home empty-handed. Instead, you end up bringing parts of the places you’ve visited back with you.

It could be something concrete, such as a souvenir you place on your desk. Or, you might add some spice to your everyday life by cooking with saffron after eating paella in Spain.

It could be something intangible, such as a deep and profound moment that hits you immediately and lingers long afterward. For instance, you see people spending their evenings outside chatting and enjoying music while the children play soccer together. These sights are a reminder of how valuable it is to create more face-to-face time with your loved ones.

Whatever it is you bring back, it’s that difference in lifestyle which helps you bring more meaning and purpose into your own world. You grasp what you see in other places and blend it into your own to create a way of living suitable for you.

Beach with palm trees.
  1. You learn different things about yourself.

The funny thing about travelling is that it reveals our many sides, like a multi-faceted gem. When you’re stuck in an everyday routine, you and everyone else only see a few different sides of yourself. At work, you’re a polite, professional self. At home, you’re a relaxed, calm self. Among friends, you’re a funny and cheerful self.

But when you’re travelling in a completely new environment, you’re exposed to places that force you to behave differently than you would at home, and when you do, you might be surprised at this new self that gets revealed in the process.

For example, going on a horseback ride might make you realize you enjoy the thrill of an adventure. You might discover that you can be assertive or even aggressive when bargaining with a street vendor. Not quite the traits when dealing with your boss at home, is it?

Often, we don’t even realize that we carry these traits within ourselves. They only surface when placed somewhere away from our usual environments. In the process, you learn about who and what you are, which determines the decisions you choose to take. These decisions then influence the path you travel down in the future.

  1. You adapt to change.

Things usually don’t go the way you want them to when you’re in a foreign place. Hiccups occur. Maybe you underestimated how tricky it would be to navigate around, or you didn’t follow the expected social norms in a restaurant.

No matter what, you learn to be quick on your feet and solve problems as efficiently as possible. Sometimes, you have to change your plans or spend time in one place when you thought you’d already arrived somewhere else.

You learn to stay calm and deal with things as they come. Furthermore, you embrace the randomness that gets thrown at you. You become comfortable with the uncomfortable. Eventually, there comes a point when you aren’t daunted at being presented with a good challenge.

River with restaurant built on deck.

Travel is what you make of it.

Travel is a variety of things. It can be incredibly fun. It can calm you down. It can make you ecstatic. Or, it can give you a thrill that you didn’t foresee.

There are also those times when it isn’t so fun. It’s tough, it’s tiring, and sometimes painful.

“I don’t know why you bother,” a taxi driver once said. “It’s so frustrating.”

And you know what? He’s right. Travel can be frustrating, especially because it forces you out of the comfort zone.  This can be really difficult for an autistic traveler.

Yet those difficult times are also the biggest opportunities for growth. During these growth spurts, you morph into someone who can take on challenges thrown at you, if only for the sheer fact that you’ve done it before.

The break from structured day-to-day life, the crowds, security lines, and waiting can stress out the most patient of adults, so, how do you get your kids through the chaos — especially if the child is on the autism spectrum or has special needs? Well, the experts say that preparation is the key to successful travel.

Help make the most of sensory-friendly travel.

There are a number of organizations helping families travelling with children on the spectrum or with other special needs. The services available range from providing a list of approved resorts and airlines, to organizing group travel or arranging staff to care for children during the school holidays.

Travel companies are increasingly offering additional services to become more accessible. Some airlines offer travel recommendations for families travelling with children with special needs, and in some cities, local airports will offer “taster sessions” to prepare your child. At  Koloko Travel, we provide advice and help to enable you to experience different destinations backed by experts in the field of sensory sensitivity.

The “Sunflower lanyard” is becoming increasingly recognized as someone needing special assistance and on my travels, I have been amazed at the acceptance and knowledge that other people have of sensory issues.

But sometimes, it is just a matter of “getting on with it”.  You can’t switch the cicadas off or stop the whistling frogs from whistling.  The rickety and temperamental air-con soon fades into the background against the sound of the sea washing up against the rocks.  Take a look at Koloko Travel to see just what is available or request a bespoke package and use the website to link to them on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram.

Nothing is perfect – accept it and move on, but travel is definitely worth it.

Learn more about sensory-friendly travel options:

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