Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | June 1, 2012

International Travel and Autism

So a couple of days ago, I mentioned I had big exciting news… that news is, I got accepted into a super prestigious intensive summer program (and given a full scholarship) in Europe! So this summer, I’ll be traveling there both to take the course, and to do field work. This is really exciting, and if all goes well, I’ll be getting some really important data for my thesis as well. (Provided, of course, that I pass my oral exams and will still be DOING a thesis.) I’m really excited, too, because I’m going to be traveling to several different countries, including France, so I’ll even have a chance to practice my French.

But as exciting as international travel is, I’m a lot terrified about how it will manifest for me. I’ve been flying alone since I was 13, I have no qualms about taking flights by myself (and I have dealt with connections, overnight layovers from missed flights, and all sorts of ridiculousness). But I’ve always had someone on the other end, ready to pick me up, or I’ve known where I’m going and how to get there, and had done it with supervision multiple times. I’ve never gone somewhere completely new, alone, without anyone to meet me on the other end. And I’m terrified. To get to the university where the summer course it, I need to take 2 trains and a bus from the airport. In a country that I don’t speak the language of. I know most people speak English, and between English, French, and a phrasebook, I should be OK, but that doesn’t change the anxiety.

I’ve traveled internationally before, both with my family when I was younger (we had relatives living abroad that we would sometimes visit), and with a group, twice, in high school. But on high school trips, there’s a group, and chaperones who do all the planning, and the guiding. They make sure you get from point A to point B. Intellectually, I understand that I can do it myself. If I don’t melt down, and manage to keep my sensory overwhelm to a minimum, I’m really quite capable of following directions, problem solving, and getting where I need to go. But it’s a first time thing, and when I’m doing something for the first time, I like to be with someone else. That way, I have someone else to look for, to check in with. If I get lost, I’m not alone. It’s not that I fear being alone, but rather, I fear being lost and not able to help myself in a new, overwhelming situation. Solo international travel is a great opportunity for any young person, and I’m excited, but that doesn’t stop me from being nervous and terrified as well.

The other thing that I’m nervous about is food. I’m sure I will figure it out, but I’m really no good with food. I don’t enjoy it, and I have so many texture issues that I can’t deal with most complex meals. I know there will be a lot of those in my near future, and I have to figure out how to deal with the stress of being away from my comforts, away from anyone I know, in a place that the language isn’t English, AND a place where there’s new strange foods, customs, people, and schedules. Good for broadening my horizons. Not so good for keeping myself out of melt-down mode.

So overall? Super duper excited, and super duper terrified. It’ll be a great experience, and I’m going to learn a TON of stuff. I get to completely immerse myself in my special interest, working with a group of international graduate students, professors, and scientists alike, none of whom I’ve ever met before, but many of whom I’ve read papers by. I’ll be working with a bunch of the smartest, most dedicated people in my field, and it’s going to be fabulous. I just have to make it there first.

Wish me luck! 🙂


  1. Brilliant! I too have food issues which I worry about while travelling. The plane food was the worst I encountered. I found that all places I’ve visited accommodated my finicky tastes. France, Spain, Ireland, Norway, Germany, Netherlands, all offered up meals to my taste. I do cheat. Once I find one good meal, and place, I order the same thing every night! Excited for you and wish you well on your adventures and learning. I am intrigued in your field of study, may I e-mail you to learn more about it?

    • Indeed – I will probably do that as well. One of my biggest issues is that I don’t like tomatoes or carrots – that basically takes nearly everything out. Plus, I’m allergic to ethanol, so everything that’s been cooked in brandy or rum or wine, or anything else, is strictly off limits, unless I wish to see how well said country’s emergency health system works. Alas. And absolutely, you can email me. 🙂 Email is in the “about” tab.

      • My no-fail is picking things up in market, always packaged as I can’t stand guessing how many fingers have touched my food. And even my diet coke doesn’t taste right in France (had to go with bottled water).

  2. I can relate to this! The first time I traveled abroad, I wound up in Charles de Gaulle Airport in the middle of a demonstration. So people were being routed out of an alternate exit that wasn’t anywhere close to the buses. My next connection? A bus. GAAAH!

    Here’s something I’ve found that helps: Get a notepad and make several big, friendly drawings for each leg of your trip that has connections. For my trip that would’ve included the airport, the bus stop, the train stations I had to go through, along with arrows from each point to the next point with the bus and train numbers labeled. That way when I get lost I can hold up my easy to read sign, point to the thing I can’t find, and smile. Typically someone is eventually willing to help.

    This is super useful in train stations, where a given platform can have two sides. Stand on the wrong side of the platform, and even if the right train comes by it’ll be headed the wrong way. This trick has saved me a couple of bad train trips. Someone will see it, ask where I’m going (or at least I think they do), I’ll point at the sign, and they’ll shake their head and point to the other side of the platform.

    Can’t help you on the food. For all intents and purposes I don’t have food issues, thank goodness.

    Bon voyage!

    • Thanks, Tom! That’s a great idea for the train station thing. 🙂 I’m still in the phase of “do I buy my tickets NOW or wait till later, or what?” but I think I’ll be able to figure it out. I’m not leaving for another 6 weeks.

  3. I’m so happy for you, E! That sounds like a great opportunity. Please tell me you won’t stop blogging while you are there 🙂 I would love to here all about your adventures while you are there.

  4. I’ve done the travelling alone internationally and needing to get my own self to the school thing before- it definitely is difficult, but I think you can do it! Find one thing and just eat it. (I did that to some extent- note my obsession with 牛肉拉面 made the CHINESE way if you want proof.)

    • Oh, and there are totally posts about my recent India trip (with group, but still included foreign meltdowns, actually more because of group than in spite of it…) over where I write 🙂 If examples of it being managed and returning alive and well helps. I think I’m way more tolerant of foods, which makes finding that one thing easier, though.

      • Thanks, Alyssa! 🙂 I’ve been following your trip to India – factories are super cool and sound super duper overwhelming. Yeah, food is the sticking point for me, I think – anything with a weird texture can cause a full blown meltdown if I’m not completely mentally ready to handle it… Alas… It’s nice to hear that you’ve done the traveling alone internationally thing, though – and made it back alive and in one piece. 🙂

  5. Hi E, this sounds really exciting! If you make it to England be sure to shout, maybe we could meet up.

    • Aww thanks 🙂 I’m not going to make it to England (I hope – that would mean something went terribly awry) – Since I’ll be returning home during the Olympics, I deliberately avoided flying through London…

  6. This is so exciting! I spent a good part of my thirties traveling to various places all over the world alone. It was good-scary.
    I loved reading the comment about making little signs. That is something I think I will do to help Emma with the inevitable transitions that come with traveling anywhere, abroad or otherwise. I found that keeping a journal with me was key when traveling to countries whose language was one I could not understand or speak. Writing also helped me sort through some of my feelings of fear, uncertainty and overwhelm.

  7. Wow! What an exciting opportunity! I like Ariane’s word, good-scary; that sums it up well.

    I’ve mentioned to you before, I believe, that I live in Paris – will you be there at any point? If you are, and you think it might be helpful, I could be a contact for you there – even if you never need to get in touch, it might be reassuring to have the phone number of someone who ‘gets it’ and who knows how things work here.

    I won’t be offended by a refusal, of course, 😉 but just thought I’d offer…


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