First off, can you give us a bit of background about yourself?
My Name is Sean Patrick Foley, and I have Aspergers syndrome. I am 27 years old and live in county Kerry in the Republic of Ireland. I am originally from London in England, but moved to Ireland when I was 13 because of problems I was having in secondary school, and was from then home educated by my dad who is a teacher for four years. In that time I learnt many invaluable social and life skills that have stood me in good stead to this day. As a result of my difficult time in the education system I was inspired to do talks on my experiences of Aspergers syndrome that I may tell my story and help others facing similar issues of that nature at the same time.
Now for those of us who don’t experience the world in the same way as you do, can you tell us a bit about Asperger Syndrome and Dyspraxia, and in what ways your experience of your surroundings differs from the so-called average brain?
Aspergers syndrome is a neurological condition associated with autism and the autistic spectrum. The main differences are a lack of social skills and a certain level of difficulty to relate to people and the world around us. In some ways your mind can be very much clouded and confused to some aspects of the world around you in terms of trying to concentrate on the many aspects of the world being played out around you and sometimes involving you, because in terms of the difference between our minds and other minds the skills that other people have are not hardwired in to us. They have to be learnt over time – some skills of which can take a lifetime to learn. In regard to dyspraxia it is a very minimal secondary disability for me, and only shows itself at times such as using a knife and fork to eat, or other hand eye coordinated tasks, but is less noticeable to me or onlookers than Aspergers syndrome can be at times.
Much of your travels have been to create awareness for Asperger Syndrome and Dyspraxia. What originally inspired you to do this?
I was first inspired to do talks about Aspergers syndrome by my dad who wrote a book about his experiences with me, called Aspergers Solution, and he did talks at teachers’ education centers in Ireland to promote the book and talk about his experiences in presentation form. He was invited to do a talk for a group of special needs assistants and the organiser asked me would I be interested in speaking also, so I spoke and got a very good reception, and was inspired to do talks on my own. And since the airing of a TV documentary called life with autism I was in. In 2011 on Irish television and thanks to the publicity that generated, I now do 3 or 4 talks in the course of a year on my experiences with Aspergers syndrome.
What are the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome in your travels?
The biggest obstacles I have had to contend with in terms of travel can be other people and their sometimes less than Asperger friendly manner, as well as not having things go your own way. This rarely happens, but it can be confusing and at the same time frustrating because you feel as if you’re out on a limb and out of your comfort zone by being away from your home environment. It is far easier when everything does go the way you planned it out in your head beforehand.
In what ways do you have to adapt your travels to your conditions?
You have to adapt to your travel situation by trying your best to normalise the situation and the change of routine, and when you are on the move shut down any irrational ideas on your mind like, “Did I do this before I left?” etc. etc. In the build up to a trip devote your mind completely to relaxation, and only a small fraction to trip related matters like packing and other anxiety bringing thoughts. A good method I have found is that in the evening before a trip that the relaxation stratagies should be brought to the forefront – these would include watching a light TV programme, having a shower or a bath, and listening to classical music.
I read in another article of yours about your struggles with a buffet, and not knowing where to even begin. You mentioned in that article that it’s much easier for you to have a set menu. Can you tell us a bit more about this – what makes something like a buffet challenging for you, and what other similar situations do you come across while traveling? How do you overcome these things?
The most difficult situations in terms of travel are the ones where you are expected to have the answers to the problem without having to ask others, and are expected to go about things in the same casual manner as others when you don’t know what to do. This can happen also when going through airport security in terms of putting your items in the buckets provided and trying to work out how to place your belongings while others are standing behind you; you are expected to do this in a swift manner so the next person can come after you, and keep the people traffic going. I know the help is out there if I want it, but I also know when is and is not a good time to ask, so my solution at times like that is just to play the game and look and see what my fellow human beings are doing and follow suit, and get myself back in to the calmer waters of life.
Are there any places or situations within the world of travel that you simply will not or cannot put yourself in? How do you get around these things?
I don’t like to put myself in situations where there are crowds of people. Sometimes it cannot be avoided like I just mentioned in terms of airport security – you just have to grin and bear it, but where it can be avoided it is avoided. I find the best thing is when you are in a city area and looking to avail of the recreational options is to go to a hotel bar environment when it comes to sitting down and relaxing because going outside of this environment can lead to you walking into a less than friendly environment where heavy drinking and anti-social behaviour can be a factor as is the case with some city bars. Other places I would not go to are countries that require jabs to visit and countries embroiled in political and religious conflict as I greatly value my personal safety.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned about yourself and the world around you from traveling?
I have learnt that travel is an amazing thing and truly does broaden the mind and gives you greater life experience and emotional growth as a person which can be transferred into your non travel life.
I’m sure there are certainly some highs and lows when you travel due to the vast majority of people not understanding your condition. Can you tell us about one of your best and worst experiences traveling?
My worst travel experience was the build up to my trip to New York in May 2009. It had been booked as a birthday present for me, but in the build up being the first time I had left Europe on a holiday I found myself checking and rechecking my documents, such as visa waver documents and my passport, to check nothing was wrong – which it wasn’t, but my mind felt a different way. I only truly settled down when I arrived there but it was none the less a mentally draining build up.
My best travel experience was to Rome in April 2004 – the weather was amazing, the food was great, and it really did loads of for my interest in history.
What would be your advice to anyone else out there with a similar condition who wants to travel, but is afraid their condition may hold them back?
If you are going to travel, adapt the situation to you as a person and not what others are doing. You are your own person, and if you need to do things your way to avoid negative situations then you should do that because at the end of the day it’s your travel experience that matters, and not other peoples. And if it is to be a good one it’s worth doing it to suit yourself. Another helpful method of easing travel distress is possibly contacting the airport and telling them you have the condition. My research showed support in some airports is very good – I like to do it independently but for some people the advice would be to get some help.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to Sean for sharing his amazing experiences! To find out more about Sean, check out these two links:
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