Travel experts and psychologist Anton Ashcroft share their best advice for anyone travelling with neurodiversity this summer.
Summer is the time when we pack our bags, board planes, hit the open road and travel. But for individuals and families with neurodiversity, getaways can often be filled with challenges, stress and anxiety.
Anton Ashcroft, a registered psychologist of 29 years and co-founder of DivergenThinking, says neurodiversity refers to a wide range of neurological conditions, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), ADHD/ADD, dyslexia and other brain wiring differences. He hears constant stories about difficulties faced by those with neurodiversity during travel, or families supporting their neurodiverse loved ones.
“Often the people we work with at DivergenThinking talk about misunderstandings being a common challenge while travelling,” Ashcroft says. “One incident involved a highly intelligent adult female traveller who identified herself as autistic with a ‘hidden disability’ sunflower lanyard [hdsunflower.com] but was met with condescending behaviour from airline staff. The lack of understanding and empathy led to heightened anxiety, making the journey a nightmare for her.
“Staff of the well-known New Zealand airline spoke down to her and in a childish voice. One staff member even said, “We know about ‘your condition’ and winked at her.” This made her recoil from seeking any further help to calm her anxiety.
“She started shouting during the flight due to the bumps and shakes and noises, convinced the plane was about to fall out of the sky, but did not ask staff for help because of her earlier experience. She left the flight exhausted and terrified about the home journey.”
According to Ashcroft, the number of New Zealanders with neurodiversity is not accurately known due to diagnostic complexities and a lack of specific questions in the New Zealand census, which is one logical place to ask questions about neurodiversity. However, it’s estimated taround 40 per cent of the workforce may be Neurodiverse with a big N (i.e. could be diagnosed with a recognised neurodiverse disorder), and everyone in the workforce exhibits neurodiverse traits with a little n (i.e. everyone’s brain is different) to varying degrees. This means that a significant portion of the population faces daily challenges, including the difficulties of travel.
House of Travel Lakers Invercargill retail manager Charlotte Chalman says she mentions the hidden disability sunflower lanyard to her travel clients, along with recommending active noise-cancelling headphones in the airport, plane and eye masks to drown out the stimuli.
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“My advice is to prepare yourself or loved one before departing to help cope with travel noises, bumps (turbulence); explaining that at times, planes are cancelled and that doesn’t mean the holiday is cancelled, only a bit delayed. Show the kids maps of where you’re going, and dive into street view so that they get a sense of the place they’re going to visit.”
Charlotte says cruises are a good option because they are designed to help you feel like there aren’t hundreds, if not thousands, of other people on board, with many quiet spaces and cabins if things get overwhelming.
“If you can try to board in one of the first boarding groups, you are able to explore the ship with relative ease, allowing you to plan where to go if you need to get away from it all.”
“Summer travel should be an experience that everyone can enjoy, regardless of their neurodiversity,” Ashcroft says. “With understanding, preparation and the right support, we hope travel experiences can be more accessible for everyone.”
Ashcroft has provided some practical solutions to address challenges and make travel more accessible for everyone:
ADHD brain challenges and solutions
- Create a standard travel checklist;
- Highlight essential items for self-regulation, like fidgeting objects or specific medications;
- Double travel time estimates to avoid rushing;
- Pack with a buddy who prefers early packing;
- Arrange energy-burning activities for downtime;
- Plan for different outcomes in advance.
Autistic brain challenges and solutions
- Develop a clear travel plan in advance;
- Use visual aids, such as social stories and picture calendars;
- Utilise the hidden disability sunflower lanyard scheme to signal hidden disabilities to airport staff;
- Create quiet spaces and use noise-cancelling headphones;
- Learn self-soothing techniques;
- Prepare for new situations with visual aids and routines;
- Express needs clearly and plan communication in advance;
In addition to these personalised solutions, seeking expert advice from travel consultants can help identify disability-friendly destinations and accommodations, such as cruises, which offer more space and less overwhelming environment.
Visual resources and whiteboarding daily routines are also helpful in managing change.