My First Trip Abroad – Autistic Travel Coach
By C.L. Bridge
My second arrival in London was much like my first: get overwhelmed while walking through Shoreditch, curl up on the bed and cry, and somehow pull myself together just enough to go out and explore. This part of London seemed much calmer and less crowded in the morning and at night, and much more chaotic in the afternoon, at least during my short stay. As an artist, I might have enjoyed visiting the art galleries nearby, if I had done a bit of research and made plans to visit them. Once I was there, I could hardly think of anything except surviving the sensory explosion.
London is enormous, with a lot to see and do. When I think about my time there, my mind becomes a jumble of museums, streets, shops, cathedrals, and sweaty, standing-room-only tube trips. I won’t try to describe it in chronological order, nor will I try to capture every detail.
Some destinations had support for people with disabilities or sensory needs. The Tower of London has a printable guide for autistic guests. Like the Heathrow guide, it has pictures and describes the sensory environment in each area. When I told the lady at the London Eye ticket counter that I am autistic, she very kindly told me I could skip the line if needed. Fortunately, I ended up not needing to skip because the line was unexpectedly short. Yay, giant wheel! I love giant wheels!
I also loved visiting the Design Museum. It was fascinating to see the art and science in everyday items such as kitchen utensils, clothing, toys, street signs, and furniture. There was a display about the creation of the tube map, and an exhibit about how fashion changes over time. If you like to spin or rock, you’ll enjoy sitting in the museum’s unusual wooden chair shaped like a spinning top!
The Victoria and Albert Museum is also a sort of design museum, but it is less of a display of technology and more of an attic filled with antique objects. I touched samples of fabric from a medieval canopy bed, tried on a metal gauntlet, designed a coat of arms on an iPad, looked at marble statues… and humiliated myself in the cafeteria by getting in the wrong end of the queue—twice. We only had time to see a few sections of the V&A Museum. I went by myself to an interactive temporary exhibit on video games—how their design can evoke certain moods or behavior, how they can tell a story, and how they can be used in activism.
In the British Museum, we split up to look at the exhibits we were most interested in. I chose to look at sketches and clockwork—wonderful clockwork. When we reunited, we looked at mummies and ancient Egyptian artifacts together. These few exhibits were only a tiny portion of this vast museum.
At the National Gallery, my companions told me to take the lead since I’m the artist in the group. My socially anxious brain did not like being asked to take the lead. What if I didn’t move along fast enough to suit the others? Nevertheless, I loved seeing the paintings, including several I learned about in my art history classes. Maybe one day I can return by myself.
Another favorite was the British Library. Unfortunately, I did not get a good view of the gigantic Klencke Atlas. The room it is kept in was closed when we arrived, but I managed to catch just a glimpse of the wonderfully huge book.
Other highlights of my time in London included sketching in the sunshine at Hyde Park, and smooshing a plush Moomin’s nose at the Moomin Shop (yay squishy noses!). I built a minifigure at the Leicester Square Lego Store (warning: the Lego Store was loud and hot, and the lights were excessively bright). After somehow climbing up all 528 steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, I was breathless enough to envy my patchwork whale, who had of course been carried to the top!
At Heathrow airport, I requested a sunflower lanyard. This lanyard signals to airport staff that the wearer has an invisible disability. Wearing it made me feel a bit better about my first time passing through security at an airport outside the US.
This concludes my first trip abroad, with all its ups and downs. Where will Whalington and I go next?
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