Flying during the COVID pandemic, when you are Autistic
Travel tips to help avoid overwhelm and sensory meltdown
The 18 months of the pandemic experienced in the UK have shown me that out of everybody I know, we autistic people have stuck particularly well to the new rules — but a problem that frequently arises is that there will be no set of rules to follow. Travelling is an activity that feels, at best, unfamiliar within our current reality, and at worst, plain wrong to do — unfortunately, we still need to do it if we live abroad and haven’t been able to go back for a while, or if a very urgent matter comes up. Since travel is something we have come to associate with “the before times”, it’s hard to find clear guidance that can help reassure us that we are doing things right, both to stay safe and out of trouble.
As a Chilean national living in England, I have had to do the journey there and back twice, but neither time with much support—so I have compiled a list of tips from my experiences to make your trips easier!
Be aware of any changing rules and regulations between each destination you are travelling to. Uncertainty is our enemy, and you don’t want to be caught by surprise with legal changes that are beyond your control, or sanitary precautions that you need to give yourself time to adjust to.
Make sure any important documents (including proof of vaccinations if relevant) are readily at hand, both on your devices and in print. If you deem it useful, a letter from a medical professional will come in handy if you need extra support.
If this is something that you find overwhelming (like I do!), ask a family member, friend, or anyone else in charge of your care to help you research, discuss, and write down key things to remember to get you ready for your trip.
If at all possible, let the airline know in advance that you might require assistance. That way, they might tell you what to do and where to go in advance to save you some stress. See if you are able to see a map of the airport online before you travel so you can familiarise yourself with where you will need to go.
If you’re quarantining at home, remember to make an online supermarket purchase in advance so that it arrives shortly after you’re back, or ask a friend or trusted neighbour to shop for a few basic things for you.
See if it’s possible to have a PCR test done at home: it’s an unpleasant but necessary step in order to travel, but it might be easier to get it done if you’re somewhere comfortable instead of somewhere with unknown smells and noises.
Bring snacks! I cannot overemphasise how important this is. If you’re taking a long-haul flight or train journey, chances are you are going to be given a hot meal—I made the mistake of not pre-booking a vegetarian meal and had to eat something with chicken. Even if you do ask for the right option or get lucky that there’s a spare, you might not like the texture or an ingredient in it!
Some countries have forbidden the use of fabric masks because they’ve been shown to be less effective in stopping the transmission of the virus. This means that you’re going to have to wear surgical masks, which can be itchy, too hot, or plain uncomfortable. I would advise you not to try to negotiate this: some fabric masks are designed to be as protective as (if not more than) surgical ones, but not every travel hub will have staff trained in supporting disabled people, and the stress of it could trigger a meltdown or shutdown.
In that case, you can prepare beforehand by practicing wearing a surgical mask at home for a couple of hours every day or, if possible, try different brands of surgical masks: for some reason, I have found some of them impossible to wear, but some other ones that my mum found for me were perfectly fine. Look out for elastic bands that don’t hurt your ears: whether it’s surgical or fabric masks, sometimes I’ve found that the material or quality of what holds a mask to my face can make all the difference in comfort. If you can’t tolerate any elastics, a good idea would be to use an extender strap, which goes around your head instead.
Who says surgical masks have to be boring? A way I have found to distract myself from the discomfort of wearing a surgical mask is to choose coloured ones: that way, at least I get excited about them matching my outfit. I know it sounds incredibly superficial, but sometimes it does work!
A visor is a good idea, but not a necessity: if you’re keen on wearing one, try practicing wearing one at home as it could be too difficult to wear it when the time comes. Much like when we think “why can’t I hear people properly when I’m wearing a mask?”, a visor is another contributor to sensory overwhelm!
If you normally wear contacts, try switching to glasses - that way, you won’t rub your eyes as much if the contacts become dry, which occurs frequently in airplanes. Keeping your eyes shielded is also a great bonus protection! If you don’t wear prescription glasses, I’d recommend sunglasses: not only do they make you look cool, but they can reduce the sensory stress coming from bright lighting.
You can use a travel-sized spray bottle to carry 70% isopropyl alcohol to disinfect surfaces - that way, you can feel safer if you need to sit down somewhere around the airport. It has been shown though that surfaces do not transmit the virus as badly as we thought, so please do not stress too much.
However, it’s incredibly important that you keep your hands clean—not necessarily after touching every single thing, but definitely if you’ve touched handrails, seat dividers, and objects such as trays that people in airports tend to pass around very quickly without staff getting the chance to disinfect first! Although—again—please try to remind yourself that you do not need to do it compulsively, especially if what you’ve touched has been disinfected.
Keeping your hands clean is especially important if, for instance, you have face-touching stims. I understand that well myself because I tend to hold my face in my palms when I’m stressed, and I’m very sensitive to even strands of hair that make my face itch.
What to wear and carry
Ideally, your travel outfit should be comfortable and easy to wash once you come back, but also easy to unbutton or unzip if you need to use the toilet or pass through security, and it has to be weather-appropriate (which is especially hard to achieve if you’re going to a very different destination!). Security is one of the scariest parts for me, so I make sure I wear something simple. Avoid boots, belts, or whatever else that takes you long to remove, especially if you’re overwhelmed.
Pack your hand luggage in easily separable sections, so that you don’t feel hurried when taking out your computer, meds, and toiletries. Remember to keep them under 100ml—I’ve had too many favourites taken away from me!
If you carry meds, I’d strongly advise to bring your prescriptions in your hand luggage, just in case you’re questioned over them.
Something that worked wonders for me, especially having dyspraxia, was to carry the most essential items in a tiny little shoulder-strapped purse so that I wouldn’t have to rummage inside my backpack (which could not only delay me but infuriate people around me!). That way, my passport and ticket could be whipped out in no time.
If you wear the Sunflower Lanyard (or any other, really!), you can clip a small bottle of hand sanitiser to the metallic end where cards and keys go. You won’t be told off for it.
Stim toys can really help us stay relaxed, so I’d recommend taking whatever can be cleaned easily, such as tangles. If there’s something soft that you really need to help you feel calmer, it’s best if you take it out once you’re in your seat.
Airlines and airport staff are doing their best to keep everything duly sanitised for our safety, and honestly, the time will fly by. Stim, distract, engage in a special interest however you can, and remember that the journey will be over sooner than you’ll realise. ♥︎
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