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Autism on the train

Six things that help me while travelling

As I write this, I am sitting alone on a train to Amsterdam. The first “big” journey I’ve done since my autism diagnosis. It feels different in a good way.

Taking public transport was the first time I really felt a difference post-diagnosis. The travel itself was not different. I still rehearsed and planned and quadruple-checked. I still struggled with loud announcements. And talking. And tube doors beeping. I still did not like it when people got close. Or indeed had the nerve to exist in the first place…

Despite all that, something had shifted.

I think it is this: knowing I am autistic has changed my expectations of myself.

All the things that were difficult before are still difficult. They probably always will be. But now I understand why they are difficult, I have some compassion for myself. I can give myself a break. And not feel a growing sense of confusion and frustration on top of everything else.

Understanding why also means I can take preventative measures, to help myself out. Here are a few things that helped me on my journey to Amsterdam.

Thing 1: Planning everything that can be planned

I didn’t fight my urge to “over”-plan this time. I looked up where my seat was on the seating plan for this make of train. I don’t have strong preferences, but knowing what to expect as I boarded was a relief. I looked up the layout of Amsterdam Centraal, and where to buy tickets to my final destination. These things would always have helped, but had not occurred to me before. Now I understand the importance of knowing what’s coming. So I can intervene. None of it took much time, and my anxiety is definitely reduced.

Thing 2: Packing a sensory kit

I sprayed my jumper and bag straps with some perfume that I like. I packed two bits of Stickle Brick that I like the feel of. I also packed sweets, because I’ve noticed that sucking on a sweet somehow calms me if I’m somewhere busy. (Sugar-free Werthers Originals, if you’re wondering). All have helped at different points. I couldn’t settle to write this, so I took out the Stickle Bricks and fidgeted with them for five minutes. I felt my anxiety levels drop, and then I started writing.

Thing 3: Pausing

I have been taking tiny breaks between journey stages. Pausing on a bench when I get off the tube. Taking a few moments to breathe in the bathroom. Giving myself a minute to settle when I find my seat, before starting to do something. I have felt my brain slowing down a little in those moments. Hopefully reducing the time it has to spend in sensory overdrive.

Thing 4: Keeping food the same

I packed food that I would normally eat for the time of day, rather than buying things at the station. I often find that different foods or mealtimes throw me off. Keeping things consistent will help. I’ve done ok so far, although just realised it’s later than my usual lunchtime and I’ve not eaten. Maybe I’m hungry but can’t feel it… Hang on, imma eat. (I literally did stop here to eat). OK, back. That will stop me reeling off my “I feel sick but I don’t know why” catchphrase later on! Crisis averted.

Thing 5: Taking breaks from wearing my mask

I have taken a break from wearing my face mask each time I’ve been to the bathroom. It has been a relief. Taking it off gives me a minute to dial down some sensory issues. Wearing a mask is not good for me. The feeling of my own breath is hard at the best of times, but combined with travel anxiety can cause real problems. I could wear an exemption badge. But I decided the stress of other people wondering why I wasn’t wearing a mask would be even worse. I may try it at some point, but for now: breaks.

Bonus Thing 6: When out with friends, I am learning to ask for help

It can’t happen on this trip, but has had such an impact I wanted to include it anyway. Recently, a walk with a friend took us along a busy road. I suddenly noticed the noise was way too overwhelming and said so. I was going to get a taxi home. I felt frustrated I had got to that point before noticing something was wrong. I was almost in tears. But because we understood the problem, my friend had an idea! He lent me his headphones. I put them in. He turned on noise-cancelling… Immediately a grin spread across my face. I could no longer hear the outside world. I was with someone I trusted to stop me walking into cars(!) and a huge weight had been lifted. It felt amazing. I did not need that taxi.

I am gradually learning to go easier on myself. To own the things that I need.

Travel is one area where I can already feel the impact of doing just that. There are a thousand pockets of my life like this. With the same logic, and a bit of extra compassion, I know I can make them easier too.

Lauren x


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