How My Autism Makes Me a Better Traveler

Traveling with autism has its challenges. It can also have some unexpected benefits.


The Pyramids of Giza sit on the west bank of the Nile River.

Photo by Joshua Michaels/Unsplash

As the bus bounced along the road between Lusaka and Livingstone, Zambia, I wondered idly whether we would arrive at noon or at 3 p.m. and how long it would take to find my hostel. But the thought soon passed, and I again became too busy chatting with my neighbors to worry. The moment itself was good enough.

I was in the midst of a solo backpacking trip that stretched through most of 2022, visiting some of the top spots on my travel list. By the time I finished my travels eight months later, I had stood inside the Pyramids of Giza, looked over the green expanse of the Amazon, and stepped out of 8,012 vehicles in 16 countries, including Rio de Janeiro and Zanzibar. Always, wherever I was on the trip, I experienced a rush of excitement, a wave of sensory details, and the slightly dizzying feeling of being alone in a totally new setting. But even though I was on my own, I had a unique set of tools to carry with me—and they were all in my head.

Growing up in a small town in New Mexico, I’d longed to see historic cities, vibrant rainforests, and crashing oceans. But I worried about how to get started. As an autistic person, I have always struggled with changes to routine, and the prevailing narrative seemed to be that people like me would never do well navigating unfamiliar situations on their own.

I started solo traveling slowly in 2017, when I said goodbye to the relatives I was traveling with in Venice and stepped on to a train bound for Croatia. After Europe, I returned to New Mexico but almost immediately embarked on a multimonth road trip around the United States, which provided its own crash course in traveling solo. And while each of those journeys was exciting in its own right, they both were also a chance to get more and more adaptable, and paved the way for the larger adventure that followed: my longest solo trip to date.


From left: The author in Mount Rainier National Park in 2017; at the Giza pyramid complex in Egypt, 2022.

Photos by Kiernyn Orne-Adams

Travel has always been one of my special interests—one of the most common and (in my opinion) endearing traits of autism. Simply put, a special interest is a topic that’s particularly fascinating to a person on the spectrum; a subject that they study and talk about and deeply love for years on end. And my obsession with plans and details (another common trait) also proved useful when it came time to plan the trip; as it turns out, absurdly intricate Google Docs—plotting out what attractions to see in which order for each and every day of travel across several countries, for example—can really come in handy.

Then there was the great pleasure of simply experiencing the nuances of each place. I’ve always been interested in watching the world go by, observing interactions between people, or savoring all the little natural details on a hike. It’s why, even years after coming home from these journeys, I can still perfectly see the surreal architecture of Casa Batlló in Barcelona or the synchronized, gliding curve of a flock of birds passing over the Amazon jungle at dusk.

But there is another, even bigger, benefit of my autism, which has carried me to all of those winding streets and mountaintops and adventurous bus rides. Being autistic means that everyday things often feel a little off-kilter: social interactions, public transportation, work environments, the whole vibrant and dizzying hullabaloo of normal life. It can be a pain, but it’s also a part of living with a disability like this one. This experience helped me roll with the punches when plans were derailed or when I couldn’t seem to quite connect with people in a new place. Autism has taught me to embrace the new or unknown, wholeheartedly.

I can only speak to my own experiences of traveling—and being on the spectrum, for that matter. This isn’t to say that everything was perfect; there were certainly a few days spent loafing around various dorm rooms in burnout mode. But they were well worth it for the moments of joy, the sense of self coming together in new and exciting ways. Those jumbled neurons and that wanderlust, as it turns out, have been the perfect allies for all sorts of adventures. And hopefully they will be for many more to come.

Kiernyn Orne-Adams is a reader, writer, and roamer who currently resides in Seattle, Washington. She has spent the last several years traveling around the U.S. and the world, and is always on the hunt for unique museums and beautiful outdoor spots. Her work has been featured in Roadtrippers, SouthSoundTalk, Beloit College Magazine, TourScanner, and Fodor’s.
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