Alex Lowery speaks about autism

10 reasons why autistics may find getting public transport ‘independently’ hard

Written on 10th Oct 2017 by Alex Lowery

There are a lot of people on the autistic spectrum who really struggle with getting public transport independently. This is by no means a difficulty for everyone. Some autistics get a bus or a train no problem, but for others it is something they need support with. I can only get a few set routes that I’ve learned to get myself. I’m unable to travel just anywhere on my own, nor can I currently drive. Some people look at the fact that I can give talks and write articles, and think there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to travel independently, but you really can’t make assumptions about what autistics say they can’t do just by going off the things they can do or vice-versa. Today’s article is about 10 of the things that may impact an autistic person’s ability to take public transport independently. Note that all of these points won’t necessarily be a problem for every single autistic that can’t travel independently. They’re very much guidelines and not set in stone rules. You might meet an autistic person who only has an issue with one or two of these things. You may even meet someone who has issue with transport that isn’t on the list. If you’re autistic; please do comment and let me know how well you can relate to this article. Please read the list below. I hope you enjoy!

Photos 4 website & more 2211. Anxiety – Many autistic people experience a lot of day-to-day struggles with anxiety. When you travel on a bus or train; many unpredictable things can happen and a fear of these things happening can make an autistic person afraid to travel independently for fear that he/she won’t know how to handle the extreme stress of when something goes wrong. There may be autistic people who are simply horrified at the idea of getting distracted and then missing their stop (as a result) when it’s time to get off.

2. Sensory Issues – Many people on the autistic spectrum experience high levels of Sensory Overload. If you’re autistic; when you travel on a train or even a bus or any other form of transport; you may experience a lot of this. The noise of the engine can be over whelming as well as the volume of other passengers (who can be very loud) on the train. I was on the quiet zone of a train once and a few really loud men were talking and I was really having a hard time handling it. Some autistic people (myself being one of them) really dislike physical contact; particularly when it’s not on their own terms. When the tube is super packed; there can be people who get really close to you and physical contact may be unavoidable. Some autistic people may struggle to cope with this, especially when they’re on their own.

3. Navigation skills – Now, this one is very much entirely dependent on the person. Well, the first two are as well obviously; but this one is especially because there are a good number of autistic people whose navigation skills are absolutely brilliant! I even heard about a severely autistic young man whose sense of direction was better than most neurotypicals. He was able to recognise any time someone was going a different way from the agreed route. However, there are other autistic people (particularly those who may have a co-occurring condition like dyspraxia or a Learning Disability) whose sense of direction is absolutely appalling! I really struggle to find my way around places I’m not familiar with. I get lost so easily and this is one of the main reasons why I really struggle with independent travel.

4. Spatial Awareness – I have dyspraxia as well autism. Dyspraxia is a rather common co-occurring condition with autism. One of the main traits of dyspraxia is ‘not knowing where your body is in space’. I tend not to have full control over my body. As a result of this; I can stand in people’s way, bump into people and nock a heavy rucksack into someone. People have sometimes got aggressive when I’ve ‘accidentally’ done these things. I think some people may have even thought I did it on purpose to cause trouble. For ages I never really understood why people would react that way, or why people have viewed that as an impact to independent travel. After all, there are plenty of really clumsy people who aren’t autistic and that doesn’t necessarily stop them from traveling independently. However, I’ve gathered that the difference is that most clumsy people (or even people with dyspraxia by itself without autism) will more than likely have the social awareness to realise what they’ve done and apologise quickly. However, when I’ve knocked my bag into someone; I haven’t always noticed because I’m not paying attention to my surroundings. I’m simply focussed on the one thing. As a result of this, my bag or coat might knock into someone and I’m completely unaware so I don’t apologise because I have no idea I’ve done it. Someone might give a strange look and I won’t notice because I tend to be oblivious to body language and facial expressions. I will tend to notice if my body physically touches someone else’s, so in that case I’ll tend to apologise like 10 times in a row, but when it’s something I’m holing that’s touched someone else, I don’t find it as easy to notice. It can be hard to travel alone when you have this difficulty because if you’re unaware of your surroundings, you can get into trouble.

5. Stimming – Many autistic people tend to take part in self-stimulatory behaviours or ‘stimming’ for short. This is basically a series of movements that can take the form of a rhythm. Autistic people often stim. Some people’s stimming is more controlled than others, but the general public doesn’t always understand stimming so this could be an issue for some autistic people when traveling alone. Also, when I stim I tend not to think about where my body is at all. There was a time when I got really close to the railway line when stimming just because I wasn’t thinking about where I was. You can view an article I wrote on stimming here.  

6.  Social Skills – When traveling alone; you have to have at least a level of knowledge as to what’s socially inappropriate and what’s expected of you. I heard about a young man with autism who travelled on the train and kept grabbing this girl’s soft fair coat. Now, the reason for this was that he loved the feel of the coat. He loved how it felt so soft. However, this wasn’t understood and he got into a lot of trouble. You’ve got to be aware that there are things you just don’t do when you’re out and about alone. There are also strangers who may take advantage of an autistic person’s lack of social awareness.

7. Concentrating – Some people with autism (particularly those with co-occurring ADHD like me) may find that they get easily distracted. This could be a problem when traveling independently. I find that I can get really deep in thought. When you have this problem, this can mean that you’re not paying attention to your surroundings so you end up not noticing when it’s your stop.

8.  Hazard awareness – Some autistic people aren’t very aware of dangers because it takes a focus on the Big Picture that many of us lack. When you travel independently; you more than likely have to have at least some degree of awareness of danger. Some autistic people really struggle to cross the road without help because traffic is very unpredictable. This was particularly a big problem for me as a young child when I had literally no concept of danger and even thought that if I closed my eyes then the cars would all go away. I understand it now, but I still struggle with extremely busy roads. I have a tendency to wait until there are no cars present (even ones far away) but some roads rarely have an opening like that. A difficulty with crossing the road isn’t at all uncommon in autism. I’ve heard of someone who can actually drive a car, but is unable to cross a busy road without help. This can be a problem when traveling alone.

9. Planning the Journey – People with autism sometimes struggle to think ahead, plan and foresee all the things that could go wrong. Sometimes just booking the tickets and planning everything can be a difficulty.

10. Keeping track of important things – Personally, I lose things of value extremely easily. I’ve lost train tickets, business receipts and even money! I struggle to keep track of all these things when I’m so focussed on what’s on my mind. You can probably imagine why this would make independent travel hard. I’d also find that when I had lost my train ticket, I’d get so stressed that I likely wouldn’t be able to think clearly and wouldn’t know what do.





6 thoughts on “10 reasons why autistics may find getting public transport ‘independently’ hard

  1. Ann says:

    Interesting, my son has aspergers and I know he stresses a lot about public transport, you never mentioned, smell, I know autistic spectrum people seem to have a higher sense of smell, and also the thought of germs, who has touched the same bannister etc, people breathing on them, all stimulation overdrive,

    • Alex Lowery says:

      Yes true. That would come under sensory issues. I don’t really experience many with smell myself, but I know others that definitely do have a hightened sense of smell.

  2. Katrina Hobson says:

    This is spot on Alex, I travelled with my sister by train & tube yesterday. She is autistic & has dyspraxia.
    She coped relatively well with the crowds, noise etc. The two things that she absolutely hated though were only being able to find a seat on the train that meant we were facing the opposite way to the direction of travel.
    The second was keeping right on stairs & escalators. She’s left handed & just couldn’t balance holding on to the right rail, she got in people’s way holding on to the left, but stayed upright at least.

  3. Stephanie says:

    I hate travelling alone as I fear having a stranger sit beside me

  4. Crystal says:

    I have sensitivity to touch and don’t know how to cope with it when someone sits next to me. i have noise reducing earphones i can use; i carry them everywhere with me. Do you have ideas on how to make it easier to cope with when someone decides to sit next to me and touches my hip? This tends to make me freeze because it overloads my sensory system.

  5. I am wondering if its possible to accsess travel companions or if travel companions exist in the UK i feel very frustrated because tgeir are a lot of things i would like to do and places i would like to go to. I have a boyfreind who is also autistic he is much more use to travelling on his own and he does not have a diognosis of dyspraxia like i do. I find it hard to get him to understand my problems when travelling and i cannot relay on him yo help me because of this.

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Organisations Alex has worked with

  • Autism Cymru
  • Chester University
  • Glyndwr University
  • National Autistic Society
  • St John's Ambulance
  • Welsh Government

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