A Post From Amy Gravino, Member of The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation Self Advocate Advisory Board

 

The inspiring story of Amy’s vacation to Italy this summer will surely leave you longing to take your own adventure.  Although, just like everyone else, people living with Autism, may or may not enjoy traveling, we encourage those who do to explore places of interest and expand their horizons…Enjoy!

Barefoot in Italy: The Travels of a Food-Loving Aspie
by Amy Gravino

I can hear the bells.

Can’t ya hear ‘em chime?

I did.

For three weeks I heard the bells, in the town of San Marco Argentano in Calabria, Italy, where I visited family this past summer. It takes some getting used to—the sound of loud church bells ringing on the hour, every hour, accompanied by quieter tones on the quarter and half hours.  It’s an almost nightmarish proposition especially for a person on the autism spectrum, at least until the bells become a part of your daily routine.

This trip to Italy was my fourth thus far, but it was a “first” in many ways. When I was growing up, during the summer breaks from school, my parents and I would go on vacation all over the country, from the East Coast to the West. But it never really was a “vacation” for me, because I was constantly overwhelmed by the noises, the lack of routine, strange beds to sleep in, and sights unfamiliar. This made traveling an entirely unpleasant experience for me—and for our family.

The day that things began to change was the day that I learned how to pack my suitcase—which previously my mother had had to do for me. When you’re a kid on vacation, you never have much in the way of control, as you have to go where your parents want to go, when they want to go. 

Learning how to pack my suitcase suddenly gave me control over some element of my travel. I did it by finding a system that worked for me, a system of clearly labeled plastic storage bags for different items, and as a result, the stress of packing disappeared completely.

So when I finished my Masters degree and my mom and I made plans to travel to Italy, I could not have been more excited.

From the third floor of my mother’s cousin’s townhouse, we surveyed the goings-on in the street below. The church across from their building was one of at least five in San Marco, and was the source of the loudest bells that we heard each day. Jagged cobblestones lined the way into the main piazza, which bustled with teenagers, old men congregating in front of the Bar Centrale, and shopkeepers standing on the sidewalks waiting for customers.

There were several green grocers within walking distance of where were staying, but my favorite was the closest one, adjacent to the church. Every day, I would admire the deep red tomatoes on display, along with the rainbow of produce surrounding them: Peppers, zucchini, beans, oranges, apples, and more.  

As beautiful as the vegetables were, they tasted even better. You hear a lot in the news about “eating locally,” which means eating fruits and vegetables that are grown in your area, instead of ones from other parts of the world that are then shipped to supermarkets.

 In the United States, we have Farmers Markets that let us buy locally, but most people do their shopping at the supermarket. In Italy, it is the opposite—people buy vegetables mostly from the green grocer and do not get them at the supermarket.

I will never forget how sweet those red tomatoes were once I finally got to eat them.  Or how crisp and green the Romaine lettuce was, the leaves of which were washed and eaten completely plain at dinner, one at a time, or how juicy and ripe the nectarines were that we had for dessert.

Because I saw the difference between what I buy in the supermarket at home and what I ate in Italy, I gained an appreciation for fresh, local food that I didn’t have before. Now, it’s become important to me not just what I put in my body, but where the food I put in it comes from.

For a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, who may have many food sensitivities and preferences, it can be difficult to eat healthy. Finding out where food comes from and choosing when and where to buy it is another way to give a person on the spectrum an element of control over this facet of his or her life.

In Italy, one feast at the dinner table often gives way to a different feast later that night in the streets. San Marco was no exception, and the Feast of St. Anthony of Padua took place during the first week of our trip. My mother, her cousin, and his wife readily went out into the crowd, but I stayed behind. The prospect of so much noise and so many people in a tightly packed area proved too daunting, and I knew that if I went, I wouldn’t be able to handle it.

The booming crackle-pop! of multicolored fireworks that capped off the night validated my concerns, and then some.  I shuddered and cringed at every explosion, which somehow seemed louder than any fireworks I’d heard before.  My only source of relief was that I was not outside entrenched in the mass of feast-goers when it was happening.

Sensory issues are something that every person on the autism spectrum has to consider when preparing to travel. Planning ahead for a situation like the Feast of St. Anthony might have helped me to take a chance in venturing out, especially if I had a specific, set “exit route” that I could use to escape from the crowd if it became necessary.

It takes time to get used to many new “firsts” on a vacation—your first flight, first hotel bed, and the many new foods, sights, sounds, and people that you will encounter. Being able to travel is an invaluable skill, as well as something that gives you opportunities that you otherwise never would have had staying at home. Whether it’s the sweetness of tomatoes or the unpaved cobblestones moving under your feet, being on the autism spectrum doesn’t have to mean missing out on the fun of vacation.

Everyone deserves a chance to hear those bells chime.

 

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