For me, one of the more difficult aspects of being Autistic is adjusting to change, especially in my schedule. I knew this would be challenging for me during my trip so I prepared myself in advance with strategies to apply if my schedule shifted due to external factors.
I could not be more surprised by how well this ended up going. So what made this successful? Here are a couple of things that led to a smoother and more flexible trip.
First, the entire group reviewed the schedule together each night. This gave me an idea of what to expect for the next day and what could possibly change. The program directors never assigned definitive times for any activities, and this was extremely helpful for me. I never worried about being too late or early. Even better was that we reviewed the daily schedule again in the morning, so I started every day feeling confident in what was ahead.
Second, we tried to troubleshoot potential problems and conflicts, especially weather. Not only did this keep me dry, but it also made it easier for me to navigate what was ultimately the biggest unexpected schedule change of the summer. We knew from weather reports that there was a possibility of rain on the fourth of July, which would be problematic for our plan to have dinner at a park and watch fireworks. Not only did it rain, but we quickly learned there were not enough food trucks to accommodate all of the people at the park. Our group scrapped our plans and went to look for food elsewhere. We struck out at Chipotle, a food court andan In-And-Out Burger. We ended up having dinner at a Whole Foods, and this shows how I have grown to be comfortable with change and unpredictability.
I think the most important factor in my staying calm during the unexpected portions of the trip was my mindset. If you are able to stay calm and collected, you are able to view situations more rationally and pragmatically, brainstorm a myriad of solutions and are composed enough to speak to those who can help. Changing your mindset is difficult, and it isn’t a permanent or an instantaneous thing. A change in mindset takes years of hard work and effort. For me, it has required that I come up with strategies and techniques that help me move forward while remaining comfortable. Central to maintaining a calm mindset is knowing and trusting those around me. I don’t know if I would have been as calm as I was on July 4th if had happened on the first or second day of the trip, but knowing how diligent the staff had been over the previous week and trusting them, I was confident that all of the uncertainty would lead to an eventual solution.
Lastly, I want to mention a fourth category that is relevant to me but less so as compared to the other challenges - my energy level and knowing when to take a break.
Like some other Autistic people, I am acutely aware of my energy level and having an increased likelihood of panicking when my energy level is too “high” or too “low”. During our days in New York City, I could feel the energy just sap out of me. This led to more than one panicked moment of me questioning what I should do. I had a gut feeling that I was going to have some kind of breakdown if I didn’t take a break. For the first time during the trip, I felt strongly that needed to find a way to change my schedule. First, I tried to increase my energy level with lunch, but I was still tired. Next, I took a short break from the museum we were at and that was still not enough. I ended up going with my last resort - a complete stop to the day's activities.
I was fortunate that the staff were flexible to allow me to go back to the hotel with a counselor.I took the time to rest and got the downtime I needed to “fully recharge”. What did I learn from this? I know my body best, and I accepted that even when I try my hardest, I might still need a break. I was upset with myself at first because I missed seeing the Lower East Side, Chinatown and spending a night in the Village. However,I was able to rationalize this - I live in a suburb and I can come anytime!
I am proud of myself for taking a break to take care of myself. If I had not pushed myself past the doubtful voices in my head, I may have been too exhausted to enjoy Woodstock the next day or the long, final days of the trip in Boston, Washington, DC and Philadelphia. I made the right decision for me and I ended up having a phenomenal end of my trip.