Travel, Love & In-Betweens: Challenges, Resilience & The Quest Of Neurodivergent Travellers

For many neurodivergent travellers, the journey begins long before they set foot in an airport or train station...

by Tejashee Kashyap
Travel, Love & In-Betweens: Challenges, Resilience & The Quest Of Neurodivergent Travellers

In the quiet moments between destinations, there exists a space for contemplation and connection. Our series, Travel, Love & In-Betweens is an exploration of the subtle moments that define our journeys—where love blossoms amidst unfamiliar landscapes, where the flavours of a place heal a self and where journeys take you on a realm that’s more than mere miles. Join us on a voyage where destinations reveal profound insights into love, life and the myriad moments that shape our very existence.
Challenges, Resilience & The Quest Of Neurodivergent Travellers is the first of this article series. 


Travelling has always been a mix of excitement and apprehension. And if you’re one with any kind of impairment, one that is invisible–most people may find it extremely challenging, if not impossible.

When Riya (name changed on request) took her solo trip to Kyoto, Japan, the bustling streets of Gion, known for its traditional tea houses and geisha culture, made her feel overwhelmed. Despite her meticulous planning and preparation, the unfamiliarity of the environment became unsettling. Feeling a wave of anxiety cresting, she sought refuge in a quiet temple garden tucked away from the tourist path. On the other hand, for Sarah, being autistic meant that life has been a constant challenge. Although she has travelled to 12 countries and challenged herself, she still feels like a stranger in the world.

Neurodivergent Travellers

The Struggles, The Barriers

For many neurodivergent travellers, the journey begins long before they set foot in an airport or train station. People with autism frequently struggle with sensory, social, and communication issues that appear differently in each.

Psychiatrist Dr Austin Fernandes of Mumbai’s LH Hiranandani Hospital defines Neurodivergent people as those who have experienced neurodevelopmental atypical patterns of brain functioning. They are distinct from what is considered ‘normal’ by societal norms. Such neurological differences include but are not limited to autism spectrum disorder. They could be individuals with ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, Tourette’s syndrome, Asperger’s disorder, OCD and more. People who identify as neurodivergent frequently deal with a variety of difficulties in their daily lives–trouble maintaining conversations, a lack of awareness of social cues and even, environments with strong scents, bright lights, or loud noises can be overpowering for ones with sensory sensitivity disorders.

One summer, when Riya was transversing her way through Barcelona after hours of exploration, the attempts to choose a dining spot became increasingly fraught. Yet, the plethora of choices only added to the frustration. When she settled into a rustic, charming cafe, she felt a wave of panic. There, listed under the pasta section, were dishes with ingredients she couldn’t pronounce, let alone imagine. The familiar comfort of her go-to dish, spaghetti carbonara, was nowhere in sight. Overwhelmed, she felt tears welling up in her eyes. How could something as simple as ordering food turn into such an ordeal? Reflecting on that evening now, she realised it wasn’t just about the food. It was the predictability and comfort of a familiar dish.

The majority of autistic persons struggle physically. Among the most common ones are difficulties and challenges with fine motor skills, which frequently lead to clumsiness. The bustling markets of Vietnam gave Sarah serious meltdowns. Being alone in a foreign country, it was a challenge, given the language barrier and her increasing anxiety. Later, even the quiet of the room did little to calm her racing thoughts. The isolation, while necessary, felt suffocating.

Neurodivergent Travellers

When you lack the emotional control and executive function of neurotypicals, the situation may be more difficult to resolve and these seemingly irrational reactions begin to make sense.

How Neurodivergent Travellers Sail Through

“Many neurodivergent individuals and families experience several problems when they travel. They find that noise is a major problem, for example, the clanging and blaring of horns. Possible discomfort related to certain design features may cause anxiety including the use of bright lights, crowded places and more. New environments give life a maze of new realities including food, and social relations which when encountered can be quite stressful. These challenges are worse when one has to communicate with people in foreign countries since physical gestures or tone of voice may be misconstrued,” explains Dr Fernandes.

According to a leading daily publication, Nicole Thibault’s 2.5-year-old son began experiencing tantrums during a trip to an Orlando theme park. He began to experience extreme distress that resulted in tantrums. She remembers the weeks leading up to her son’s autism diagnosis.

“It is also important to note that families can use the following approaches to prevent social anxiety of neurodivergent persons. Familiarisation before the trip is ideal: the use of videos or photographs, or even taking virtual tours of the destination. One of the ways of managing anxiety is to draw a list or calendar of activities to be done on the trip and the time they are to be done. In this way, the child feels in control of time. Noise-reducing headphones, sunglasses, stress balls or ogive, or a weighted blanket can help. Scenarios of different travel situations like security checks, or ordering food can help the subject gain confidence when facing new situations,” he advises.

According to Sarah, the challenges she faced didn’t ruin her journey; they enriched it, providing lessons in patience, adaptability, and the kindness of strangers. Similarly for Riya, understanding her neurodivergence has been a journey. Certain moments, once sources of shame and confusion, now hold new meaning.

Also Read: Emirates Invites 30 Families For Autism Familiarisation Flight and Travel Rehearsal!

Is The Travel Industry Really Inclusive?

Neurodivergent Travellers

The notion of inclusivity in travel encompasses various dimensions. The travel industry has made strides toward inclusivity, but it still falls short in many areas, especially for neurodivergent travellers. Efforts have been made to accommodate travellers with mobility issues through features like wheelchair ramps, accessible hotel rooms, and modified transportation. However, they often overlook the needs of neurodivergent travellers.

Neurodivergents make up 10% of the European workforce and 15% of the UK population. Yet there has been a sharp decline in the percentage of travel programs that take these individuals into account, from 39% to 18%. According to KultureCity, one in four people in the United States has an invisible handicap or sensory need. A recent Hyatt-led poll reveals that hotels can facilitate a more seamless and inclusive travel experience for the majority of neurodivergent individuals and their caregivers, with over 90% of them looking forward to travelling. According to a study, around 2 million people in India are neurodivergent.

“The Indian hospitality industry can promote inclusivity for neurodiversity. First and foremost, it is important to provide workers with thorough training programmes so they understand neurodiversity and how it affects customer service. Forming alliances with advocacy organisations can also help obtain information and assistance. Adding neurodiversity advocacy groups as co-hosts to campaigns or events will help spread the word even more. Making sensory-friendly areas and providing customised services can also have a big impact. By using marketing efforts to promote these measures, we can increase industry knowledge and create an environment for their widespread acceptance,” advises Mr Jaison Chacko, Secretary General at The Federation of Hotel & Restaurant Associations of India (FHRAI).

The Path Forward

Despite these challenges, positive changes are happening within the travel industry. As awareness increases, families and individuals who identify as neurodivergent look for travel experiences that are accommodating to their requirements. “Businesses can use a variety of tactics to promote awareness about the needs of neurodiverse visitors. Marriott’s autism awareness programmes and Hilton’s ‘First Responder Training’ are two successful examples. These actions not only enhance the visitor experience but also indicate a brand’s dedication to inclusivity. This can further boost the company’s standing and draw in more clients,” Mr Chacko highlights.

Neurodivergent Travellers

Several Indian hospitality groups have already made significant strides towards neurodivergent travellers. “Initiatives to create a sensory-friendly environment have been undertaken by Taj Hotels. Staff training programmes to better understand and accommodate clients who are neurodiverse have been started by ITC Hotels. The Oberoi provides individualised guest experiences and staff trained in neurodiversity awareness. In the same way, some fine dining restaurants and boutique hotels in major cities like Bangalore and Mumbai are establishing inclusive menus and sensory-friendly settings. Additionally, several independent cafés and restaurants are implementing similar processes to create inclusive dining environments,” he brings to notice. While these initiatives show a favourable trend in the direction of inclusivity, there is still much room for improvement and industry-wide acceptance.

Disclosing one’s neurodivergence to strangers can be fraught with uncertainty. While some individuals may respond with empathy and support, others may lack understanding or even exhibit prejudice. Most neurodivergent travellers transform into virtual chameleons–adopting characteristics that can frequently help them blend in and hide to escape bullying and exclusion or offend people unintentionally. However, this practice comes at a cost of significant mental and emotional energy. Empathy and education are crucial in addressing these challenges.

For both Riya and Sarah, travel has transcended physical experience and brought a connection that resonates on a profound level. Most importantly, they were happy to take the risk to show their young selves the world–and are now unbreakable globetrotters.

All image credits: Canva