Autism Spectrum in the Big Apple

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Tips to avoid Sensory Overload when Traveling

Traveling to the Big Apple is not something I would have considered, until my daughter’s Girls Scout troop planned a trip to New York. Of course, both of my girls wanted to go. An excellent opportunity for both of them, I decided that chaperoning was the way for my daughter with Autism Spectrum Disorder to be able to successfully participate.

New York City: Battery Park at Sunset
Battery Park at Sunset

Finding the Quiet in New York City

New York City made for a fantastic trip, and we had a great time. However, one experience has stuck with me. We visited Battery Park at sunset, and while walking along the water my daughter said, “Ah, it’s finally quiet.” Her point is well taken; the entire trip was filled with sensory overload. Constant sounds of traffic, horns beeping, people yelling, clanging of metal coupled with seemingly wall-to-wall people made me long for the quiet suburban village we call home.

Unlike the Big Apple, our home town offers many spots to decompress. It’s easy to shift our dinner hour to visit a restaurant when it is nearly empty. My daughter boards a school bus with less than 20 other kids, and travels to school without start-stop traffic or horns beeping relentlessly. She doesn’t need to wear noise-cancelling headphones.

Sensory Spectrum and Big Cities

This experience made me wonder whether sensory meltdowns are more prevalent in large cities like New York, or whether people with exposure over time learn to adapt. Moreover, it made me wonder whether those on the sensory spectrum are more isolated in an attempt to avoid the cacophony. Or, perhaps the right noise level can be achieved with noise cancelling headphones.

Everyone has a Comfort Level

It made me think about my own sensory status quo – where I find that balance of comfort. I don’t think I could live in the Big Apple; I am not a fan of large crowds or constant noise. Add heat plus humidity into the mix and I am outright cranky. Knowing my daughter experiences things more intensely, helps me to appreciate her point of view. Although we don’t always get it right, we have learned over time how to experience life with less meltdowns.

Tips to help minimize sensory meltdowns when traveling

Create a plan

Ideally at a family meeting, where everyone can have input into what they’d like to do or see. It’s also a good time to suggest quieter activities to weave in around the busier ones.

Make a picture schedule

Or a written one, as appropriate and share it so that everyone knows what to expect. On our trip to the Big Apple, we revisited our itinerary often, and our leaders made frequent announcements so we all knew what was about to happen next.

Follow the schedule

Surely, the unexpected happens, but do your best to stick to the schedule. Knowing what comes next can help relieve anxiety. Have you ever been on an airplane, waiting to take off, and no one is telling you what the hold up is? Do you feel anxious? Aggravated? Have a hard time sitting in your seat? Knowing what is happening creates a level of comfort.

Include planned breaks when possible

Taking a walk or finding a spot away from lots of sensory input every 30 to 45 minutes can help decompress before moving on. Taking 5 or 10 minutes to relax in a quiet space can help avoid meltdowns.

Don’t do all the Things

Everyone wants to maximize their trip to see as much as possible. I’ve learned over the years that seeing more isn’t always better – especially if it results in managing more meltdowns. Seeing less but being able to engage successfully during those encounters reduces everyone’s stress

Learn more about my daughter’s experience as a Girl Scout here.

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