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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Don’t Have A Meltdown Over Ice Cream

We have all heard the expression and maybe even read the book, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff,” yet sometimes we do or we have an encounter that reminds us.

It was a beautiful, but humid (which in this part of the country is usual) summer evening and we were standing on line for an ice cream cone.  The line was long: actually there were two adjacent long lines, filled with children, teenagers, families, infants in strollers, couples of all ages and pairs of friends, also of all ages. One such pair of friends was standing in line in front of us; they looked to each be around eighty years old, but this is just speculation.  As we waited and my friend and I chattered away the time, during the pauses in our conversation, I could not help but overhear some of the conversation of the women in front of us being that we were standing so close behind them.  One of the women was making remarks about people in line, and it was really obvious because she would look around, scowl and quip to her friend things like, “Look at her in those shorts—who does she think she is?” or she would pass a disapproving glance through the crowd.  Mind you, we were on line for ice cream at an ice cream shack, not a fancy restaurant!  In response to her remarks, her companion would shake her head in agreement or just listen dutifully.

Finally, after about forty-five minutes it was almost our turn to reach the front of the line and place our orders at the counter of the ice cream shack.  Being closer to the front of the line, we could now read the numerous assortment of flavors including one of the evening’s special flavors: “carmel pretzel swirl.” Moments later, it was time for the woman in front of us to order.  The college girl politely asked her, “What can I get you this evening?”  The woman answered, “A cup of carmel pretzel swirl.”  The college girl then politely answered,  “I am sorry but we are out of that flavor, can I get you something else instead?”—there are about thirty other flavors!  And with that, the woman, in the meanest, rudest tone possible, snapped back at the college girl, ” FORGET IT!!!!”, as if it was the college girl’s fault that they were out of the flavor she wanted, and really, as if she had just been given a death sentence!  The two women (including the dutiful one) stomped off of the line, neither one getting an ice cream or even considering getting another flavor.

I was not only in shock by her reaction, but very offended by it and very sympathetic towards the innocent college girl who was just politely doing her job at the busy ice cream counter!  How could that woman act so rudely, and about something that was supposed to be fun and delicious—ICE CREAM?  What was the big deal if they ran out of the flavor she wanted—she had waited almost an hour on line and there were at least thirty other flavors to choose from?  Why could she not just choose another flavor?  Why did she have to treat the college girl with such disdain? Why did she make such a big deal over this and how come she could not recover from her disappointment over something so inconsequential?  All of these questions flooded my mind.

I did not have time to think of any answers to those questions because now it was our turn to order our ice cream treats! I settled on a vanilla/banana soft- serve with hot fudge!  My companion had wanted the mocha chip but they were out of that one too so he settled on a cone filled with a flavor called “Moose Tracks!” Thankfully my companion got it right and did not have a meltdown over ice cream!

As we walked home, enjoying our frozen treats and the simple pleasure of the evening, I looked back at the long line of waiting patrons and could not help but think that they too would soon be cooling down with their icy treats and how that unhappy woman and her dutiful companion were somewhere in the night sweating over the small stuff.