Travelling to Broaden the Mindset
Martin is 43 years old and has worked in local government for ten years. He was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome (AS) 5 years ago now.
Having worked continually for ten years, he decided he needed a break for career reasons and also to gain fresh insight from experiencing something completely new. Doing this, he had found previously, helped him to develop and satisfies his curiosity about different things that is part of his having AS.
Doing so has helped him re-charge his batteries on a personal level and given him fresh motivation to continue his career when returning to his previous position.
The views expressed are personal, for illustrative purposes only and should not be related, or automatically applied to, other situations or scenarios.
Why did I do my most recent trip at all? It’s something I had been thinking about for a while – partly because I like travelling and partly owing to my tribunal case which related to my Asperger syndrome and my experience at work.
I had been turned down for a promotion owing to the effects of my disability and so felt obliged to fight for my rights. It was an invidious position to be in, but the only thing worse than bringing the case was not doing so. However, I would rather have simply got the promotion and not had to bring any case. Even before winning it, my career wasn’t exactly flourishing and there is only so much enthusiasm I felt I could maintain in the role had things not changed in some way.
Consequently, I decided I needed a complete break: one that would re-charge my batteries personally, re-fresh my mindset and, perhaps, give me a fresh perspective to approach things differently when I returned to work.
I decided I would travel my way across Asia. Many times before I had gone traveling and had used public transport, but this time I wanted to do it in a more challenging way – which I decided to do by making the trip in my own Toyota Landcruiser.
I first got the travel bug out of a desire to do something productive during a summer break from college in 1989. It was my first year at college and I wasn't used to having 3 months to decide what to do with it.
I think that the continual change and opportunity to see different cultures, ways of life and meet totally different people really helps from the perspective of having Asperger syndrome. It means I can gain insights into other people that I would not gain in a context such as work w here things do not change and where I meet, and interact with, the same people every day.
So in my summer 1989 college break, off I went to America and, perhaps predictably with hindsight, I didn't get on particularly well with my colleagues at summer camp. This was due to classical AS symptoms – perceived rudeness, inability to sense when I was annoying others, inappropriate comments and perceived selfishness owing to my obsession with my little routines, more about which below.
So at the end of the two month stint on camp, I was faced with the choice of either going home early or spending a whole month travelling alone in a strange country. The thought of this filled me with trepidation and worry, but I suppose looking back it was merely an extension, albeit a large one, of the 'never be stopped from doing something just because you can't find anyone to do it with' philosophy I had prided myself on all through my childhood.
I am pleased to say that I coped admirably with what – in effect – was a lot of change and unfamiliarity, even though it was the longest I had ever spent completely on my own and away from anyone I knew. It was the first time I had been able to experience change in the context of travel and is, I think, one of the reasons why I find it useful in relation to my AS.
Although that first summer in America didn't particularly “cure” my AS, it made me into a far more confident and self-reliant person who was afflicted with it. It acted as a springboard for subsequent travel - each time, I have pushed the boundaries further, and many people have said that that first summer 'made me' as a person.
As for routines, I guess my summer in America DID, in a way, ‘cure’ me of one aspect of AS in that it was the first time I had ever shared a bedroom with people. There were so many little rituals I engage in for no other reason than that I had always done them and had never had anyone to question me.
These were the sort of things I would have learned if I was not an only child, but nonetheless I was. The pyjamas, the cleaning of my spectacles every night last thing before going to bed, the arranging of my stuff in a certain way – all were knocked out of me! It gave me an appreciation when interacting with people of the need to accommodate their needs also and to make concessions for them and compromise to a degree my own requirements in the process.
The experience was so rewarding I decided to go back. The summer of 1990 saw me in America again, but in different places. It was a beneficial summer, but the previous summer had a larger effect on me.
In 1991 I met my first girlfriend. I wanted her to come traveling with me, but at that time she wasn’t as intrepid as me and I ended up going inter-railing on my own through Eastern Europe and Turkey.
After whetting my appetite with that first taste of developing countries, I decided to be a bit more adventurous and spend the summer of 1992 working in Jamaica. Of course, like Eastern Europe and Turkey, that was a very distinctively different culture, but even more so!
From a work perspective this visit gave me real insight into different people and cultures and an appreciation of the need to adapt by taking on board the fact that other people have different ways of doing, and going about, things.
I have always thought somewhere like Germany, for example, would be a good, straightforward place for an AS sufferer to live – a place where people say what they mean and mean what they say – but Jamaica has to be one of the most opposite cultures to that of Germany.
In other words, the experience in Jamaica did make a bit of difference to my AS, as it was pretty much the first time I found myself dealing with a culture and way of doing things that wasn’t quite as precise and cut-and-dried as I had been brought up with.
A person with AS obviously takes everything that is said to them literally. This doesn’t get you very far in a place like Jamaica and one can imagine what a shock to the system this must have been for an AS sufferer.
People with AS aren't supposed to be very keen on travelling, preferring the steady routine of home life, and not being very adept at dealing with new people and situations.
However, I have found that, for me travelling is one of the closest things to a remedy for AS. My first girlfriend used to say to me that I couldn't "read people" and I could never understand what she was on about. Travelling has helped mitigate this for me.
I can well remember how I magically became able to read people during my travels between 1993 and 1995 when, for the first time, I spent some significant time in countries where English wasn’t widely spoken.
Becoming able to pick up non-verbal signals and communication from people was like another eye had opened. Just like China was the place where we learned fast how to eat with chopsticks because we had to, picking up non-verbal’s as a way of understanding what was going on, was something I found myself developing when with people I couldn't communicate with verbally. Perhaps it is like someone who develops other senses to compensate when they become blind.
The most recent trip is the first major (i.e. of career-break magnitude) trip I have done since learning I had AS. I guess another reason for doing the trip was to prove that AS needn't stop a person from travelling.
At work I find I question myself – whilst also, at times, becoming apprehensive and even anxious – when asked to take on a new challenge, one which, perhaps, I am sure about and which disrupts my established routines. Whenever I find myself confronted with such a scenario I think back to my travels and locate an example where I felt the same but was forced to overcome it – which, invariably, I do successfully.
I hope anyone with AS who reads this can take comfort from the fact that a person with AS can still do a challenging trip, and perhaps be inspired to do something similar themselves. Hopefully, they will then be able to use the lessons gained from their experience to enhance their performance and sense of well-being in the workplace as I have.
I think that overall travel is a good idea for people with AS. Certain aspects of it come pretty close to a cure, e.g. the non-verbal communication, whilst the general boost to one’s self-confidence from being able to rely on ones self and deal with whatever the world throws at you is not something you would get from sitting at home or undergo in the same way at work.
Moreover, going traveling to different countries means that you are in the position of having to approach people and find things out from them. From my own perspective, I believe that, though I am by no means perfect at doing this, I am better than I would have been had I never done all this traveling as it has given me so much practice.
I now feel I can approach, interact and communicate with people much better as a result at work because of my increased understanding of people’s different perspectives and personalities. This has given me a great, additional boost to my self-confidence.
Gullibility is another unfortunate side-effect of AS, occasioned by the tendency to take everything literally. Having been traveling, however, has meant I have had the opportunity of gaining valuable practice into ‘sussing’ people out and being able to judge whether someone is trying to take advantage of me.
At work, I can relate this to instances where people I have worked with have tried to pass their responsibilities onto me or when they have blamed me unfairly for things.
Travelling has been enormously beneficial for personally in relation to my career and work experience. For me, it is the most effective form of self-development.
The benefits have been substantial for a person with Asperger syndrome.
Firstly, having had exposure to other cultures has improved my empathy and ability to see things from others’ perspectives. By understanding that people are different, and appreciating that I need to change my mindset and make accommodations for those differences, I have been able to forge more effective working relationships with people in my place of employment.
A major side-benefit from this is that it has also reduced the propensity for me personally to become agitated or incensed by people who do not act in the way I feel they should.
For example, if someone is more overly assertive, or perhaps even aggressive, I find that my disposition towards them is more tolerant and not overly reactive.
This takes the heat out of situations and prevents them from escalating and means that I do not take offence so easily towards them. This then means there is no residual ill feeling going forward which, in the past, has been the trigger for additional discord.
Travelling also means that I am never in a set routine. Every day is different which means that I have to adapt personally. Things happen suddenly when you travel; the train doesn’t run as expected for example, meaning that I have had to come to terms with – and accommodate – disruptions to my plans and work around them. I cannot say just how useful this has been at work where schedules are always changing.
Being “on the road” also means I have to learn; learn to do different things which has assisted and encouraged my learning. Road signs is an obvious one and, of course, there are so many other little differences one has to get used to: having to remember to buy your cinema tickets on the ground floor before you go up to the cinema on the top floor of the Indian shopping mall, or keeping all fuel/hotel/restaurant receipts in Russia in case you get inspected by the immigration police.
Prior to my travels I was in a set routine, doing a fairly mundane role with job tasks that I had quickly got on top of. My AS propensity for routine meant, of course, that I was comfortable with this even though I was to a degree bored.
This meant that I wasn’t developing personally.
Now I find I am more disposed to seek new tasks. Since returning from my travels I have assumed new responsibilities which has given me a chance to learn, provide fresh motivation and incentive to seek additional learning opportunities.
Finally, travelling has forced me to confront unpalatable issues and to do so in a more assertive and tactful way. When travelling you will always be presented with situations that are confrontational and need to be resolved amicably: when my car was impounded by Customs in Calcutta – I had to resolve this, otherwise I wouldn’t have got the car back, for example
Often, in the past, I would shy away from such occurrences and adopt an “avoidance strategy”: i.e. not confront the person or issue in the hope that it would go away. It usually never does of course, and almost certainly not in a work context.
Now I find I tend to address the issue before it has a chance to take hold. Through my experience of dealing with different cultures and the greater ability to empathize, I have developed a more assertive way of resolving issues amicably. For a person with AS at work, this is of immeasurable value.
To conclude, taking a career break is something that everyone with AS should consider at some stage. It depends, of course, on personal circumstances and should not, I believe, be taken for the wrong reasons e.g. to avoid work responsibilities.
However, if the circumstances allow, it can provide the break, new insight and fresh momentum that can provide real motivation. My improved output and more contented frame of mind convince me of that.