We recently had a really interesting discussion on travelling on The Gentle Autistic Women’s Community Group (we really do cover a world of topics on there). That has inspired me to write about the merits and pitfalls of public transport and driving for us neurodivergents.

Travelling is one of the most challenging aspects of our lives, for many of us, at different points in our lives. Travelling carries the danger of the unexpected, which is not something that many of us cope with well. Life is less controllable once we leave the safety of the familiar. Many neurodivergents are particularly susceptible to travel sickness as passengers, so that’s a whole extra stress to contend with.

I’ve gone from being someone who loved driving all over the UK with work, and to visit relatives, to someone whose confidence and ability to navigate, post-breakdown/shutdown is so low, I can only face very short, local trips, if I am the driver. I’m the same person, I am still a good and careful driver – it’s all about the anxiety for me, and I’m not alone. I had no idea, until this year, how much energy it saps, how much executive functioning is involved. In the past (pre-diagnosis), I admit I have even been a little derisory (in my head) when someone tells me they “don’t do motorways”, for example. Driving was one of the few places where I felt in control, happy. Music on full blast, no passengers, nothing but open road and adventure ahead… as long as that adventure had no detours, no unexpected occurrences (breakdowns, crashes, random queues, diversions). And as long as I knew EXACTLY where I was going to park. I’d pay way over the odds to prebook parking when I travelled to London, simply because I needed to know. I needed to Google it, see it from all angles, imagine myself being there. Then I’d learn the route on foot from the car to the destination. Only then could I face the trip. And all of this was way before I knew I’m autistic. I loved the drive, but only if it was a long distance familiar route. I suppose at some point I might return to being able to do those, but not yet.

So, with that slight diversion, let’s return to the original route. Very few of us can avoid travelling completely, though with the advent of working from home, thankfully many of us have to do less of it, if it causes us undue stress. I’m not going to touch on air travel here as that’s in a league of its own and merits its own post.

I think I might do this post in a pros and cons list format, as I’m a bit low on spoons today. This list is based on feedback from other neurodivergent people, my own experiences and my research. As with everything else on this glossary, it involves generalisations that may not apply to you. If you’d like to add anything to this post, or any others, please contact me via the Share page and I’ll be very happy to add your perspective.

Pros of public transport:

  • Many of us don’t or can’t drive at all for lots of reasons – without public transport we’d be relying constantly on favours from friends and relatives, and we don’t all have those (plus it’s hard to keep asking for help).
  • In theory, it’s cheaper than running a car, especially since fuel prices, insurance and the cost of driving lessons have all sky rocketed, but this really depends on what form of transport we’re using and how often we use it.
  • Some of us are entitled to discounts or free travel.
  • We can save our energy for the task ahead, wherever we’re going, rather than arriving feeling utterly exhausted from the concentration and stress of coping with the traffic.
  • We don’t have the responsibility to navigate – many of us really struggle with navigation. If applying for PIP, this is an important factor to tell them – it is worth valuable points.
  • If we travel in the same mode of transport on a regular journey, it is reassuring to know that our bus/train/taxi will arrive at the same time each day (in an ideal world). That reduces our anxiety.
  • We can dual task whilst on the move – reading, people watching, catching up on sleep, admin or communications.
  • There are other people around us to ask (if we feel able), if we’re unsure if we are catching the right bus/train.
  • Coach travel is cheap and it has the bonus of going from A to B without having to get off, change vehicle, and continue on our way. And they’re pretty comfortable nowadays.
  • There’s no stress about where to park, and the cost involved with that, when we reach our destination. We just get off and go.
  • If we can afford it, taxis come as close to driving ourselves as we can possibly get, and Ubers (if you happen to live in an area that runs them) give us more safety and less of the unknown – we know the time, the name of the driver, the cost AND we have the power to leave feedback.

Pros of driving (if we are able):

  • It gives us a sense of independence when many of us struggle to maintain that, for all sorts of reasons.
  • It means we’re on the move when it suits us, not when it suits the public transport system. This means shorter journeys, less waiting around, less fear of connections not tying in.
  • If we travel heavy, as I do (preparing for all eventualities at all times), we’re not limited to what we can carry.
  • We can visit places, friends and family who live off the beaten track, without expensive taxi rides.
  • It can give us some much needed ‘alone time’.
  • The weather is less of a problem if we’re not standing at bus stops in the freezing cold, pouring rain, howling wind, especially if we have sensory issues.
  • We have more control – less unknowns. The only person who is going to cancel our trip at the last minute is us!
  • Which brings me to the reality of the rail network. Not only do many of them run late, they also frequently get cancelled. Either cancelled altogether or replaced with a very slow bus. None of this is conducive to keeping the ever-present anxiety in check. This ongoing problem really negates the argument in favour of public transport being a perk because it runs at predictable times. It’s not uncommon for my daughters to spend 4-6 hours getting home from visiting me and they live between 45 minutes and less than two hours away by car. We can literally spend an entire day getting to and from somewhere without any time to do anything in between!
  • One of the big downsides of public transport is that, especially if we’re travelling some distance, it’s likely there will be changes/links involved. For me, any train booking that says there’s a change involved is a complete no-no. I just know I will be on the wrong platform at the wrong time and probably rush on to the wrong train. Often a longer journey will involve trains with changes AND a bus ride. If you’re pulling that one off, you’re tougher than me. No way.
  • Another big problem for me, at least, with public transport, is having to sit next to, or near, strangers. I hate them immediately. Usually without any grounds whatsoever. They may be just eating a sandwich loudly – that’s not their fault. They may sniff a lot. They may have a really irritating voice – that is in no way their fault. They may be wearing an overpowering perfume – that’s entirely their fault. They may sit with their arms or legs spread really wide, so I’m shrinking in my seat, because they clearly have no awareness of the space they’re taking up. The worst, and I truly DO hate them, are those who decide that everyone who is unlucky enough to be sharing their trip wants to hear their telephone conversation, at full volume. I just want to get up, open the window and throw their phones out! So rude.
  • And then there’s the horror of all horrors – the person sitting next to us wants to chat. I’m actually really good at it – I seem to have a pretty convincing mask in that area. That doesn’t mean to say it doesn’t completely exhaust me and that I don’t spend every second hoping they have headphones and a newspaper so they will eventually just let me be. None of this is an issue in a car, unless we’re in a taxi and the driver decides they need small talk.

Anyway, that’s a good start. In all honesty, even using motorway services that I’m not familiar with give me palpitations. Why they all can’t just have the same layout and not make us search for the toilet sign in a state of panic, I don’t know. They are grim, grim places. As are bus stations, railway platforms and taxi stands. Travelling is just hard.