I’m recovering from a trip away, our first in over 6 years. I feel wobbly, like I’m standing on a moving dock and my internal organs are floating up and down inside me as the water shifts the ground under my feet. I’ve been sleeping long and gently holding my skull in my hands to take some of the weight off it. Re-entry has been rocky.
I know some autistic people who love travel. I like the idea of travel. I like the notion of seeing new things and learning more about a place. It turns out though that travel involves people and people involve talking and smells and sounds that cover me like cling wrap and prove difficult to untangle from.
I knew this about myself. But my son wanted to fly on a plane to see a big museum and so for his fifth birthday, we made his wish come true. He’s autistic and anxious and loves his own home, so we knew this trip would be a big bold experience for him. One that was likely to involve anxiety before, during and after. One that would be worth it when he looked back on it in years to come.
For this to be doable, careful planning was needed. This is my forte. This is how I roll. I spent hours researching every element of the trip. I started with how to get to the airport in the easiest way possible. I factored in the challenge of transitioning from the car to the terminal and paid extra for a valet service so we could literally drop the car and run. I picked a time to fly that meant we didn’t have to rush to get there in the morning and I paid for full insurance in case my boy just couldn’t get on the plane.
I packed our headphones and iPads for the plane and my husband packed all our snacks so we didn’t have to eat unfamiliar food. I chose a hotel based on being central to our two planned activities (the museum and the zoo) so we didn’t have to trek to where we needed to go. I planned one activity a day, returning to the hotel for a full afternoon of recovery each day. I pre-purchased tickets online for the zoo and researched how we would get there, making a note of the wharf the ferry left from and where we would buy our ferry ticket from.
I pre-chose all the food we would eat online and created a map with where each of the food places was and how long it would take us to walk there from the hotel. I planned every detail so that the trip away could unfold with no surprises and I was successful. Nothing unexpected happened and my son got his birthday wish.
Along the way though, the world out there has seeped inside us and we are all fragile because of it. There were smells –
Roasting flesh food stalls
Sticky perfume odors
There were sounds –
Hacking man coughs
Honking ship horns
There was unexpected eye contact that jarred and electrified and forced conversation with hotel staff that left us dizzy.
All of it remains on us and in us and we are holding tight while it slowly leaks away. Like air from a balloon that is too full and hard. I want to pop it and have it done with but that would mean taking to my bed while the after shock knocks me flat.
There is no external evidence that we ever left home. The suitcases were hidden away and the dirty washing cleaned within 24 hours of re-entry. Internally though, none of us are back to our normal. My son is raging and needing to take hold of his world and pound it back into its familiar shape. I am hiding and holding, knowing that time and stillness will stop the spinning and return me to my brand of equalibrium.
The trip away was a success. It was. I’m glad we did it. Our son stacked memories that may last forever. But like everything autistic people do in a non-autistic world, it was also a heavy challenge that requires a slow recovery.
Today, I will hold my skull gently for a little longer.