Take some advice from international exchange alumni on the autism spectrum about what they did overseas to make the transition abroad more smooth – and what they wish they had done.
Connect with Advocates Abroad
You might find that there’s a lack of understanding of autism among general population – even more so than in your home country. To fight isolation, seek out local autistic people and advocates by connecting with autism organizations or chapters in the host country.
Get Around Like a Pro
Tourism or transportation offices in the host country and city sometimes offer services that orient visitors to the local transportation system. Practice how to obtain tickets, identify the right bus or train, and common routes between home and school or other locations. Have home and other addresses written in the local language, and a telephone number of someone who could provide directions if you get lost. Consider taking a smart phone or tablet abroad with you to access the broad range of apps that help you keep track of time, stay on schedule, and navigate directions.
Cope with Stress
International travelers experience new noises, touches, tastes, and smells that can sometimes feel overwhelming. There are times you might feel too crowded in a big city. Ted Koehler, a U.S. student on the autism spectrum did a cultural program in Japan. He says that physical therapy and occupational therapy in the past has helped him adapt to the stressful situations in Japan, but he also developed other strategies. “I cope by thinking about things I like to do, like a certain Japanese [animation film] or video game I like, and just try to phase out the anxiety.”
Disclose to Your Peers and Hosts
You are not required to disclose your disability to your fellow travelers, roommates, host family members, or others if you don’t want to. Some autistic international exchange participants have felt that it made the experience easier for everyone, including themselves, if they did tell others about their disability.
For Chris Tidmarsh, a U.S. student who studied in France, talking to a trusted friend about his Asperger’s early on in the trip was helpful. “Tyler appreciated that I had disclosed my disability to him, and even told me that if I had any questions about social situations, I could ask him too. Telling him about my Asperger’s enabled him to understand my condition better, and appreciate my capabilities and gifts.”
Another student, Kathleen Coleman, says that if given the opportunity to study abroad in Barcelona again, she would have liked to have lead a question and answer session with all of the students in her group so that they would feel more comfortable around one another. “They would have known that I was different – but in a very good way!”
Set Goals for Yourself
What do you want to get out of your international exchange experience? Do you want to increase your independent living and self-advocacy skills? Improve your foreign language abilities? Feel more at ease when talking to new people? Create a goal for yourself and decide on an action you can take each day or each week to help you achieve it.
When Yasushi, an international student from Japan who studied in the U.S., felt isolated during the class because he could not understand the discussions, he made a personal goal to speak up at least once per class. “When I did this, I realized that my professors and classmates valued my participation. Someone even complimented me on my presentation skills!”