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Going to the Beach with Aspergers

By Aaron Tanner

· Panama City Beach,Aspergers,Gulf of Mexico,Dining,Small Talk

Traveling alone for the first time can be an intimidating experience. For someone with a disability, it can be an even more significant challenge. There are different factors one has to plan for when traveling with special needs, such as dietary restrictions, access to guides who can assist the disabled person, or if an attraction allows service dogs.

Because of my Aspergers, It took me until almost the age of thirty to feel comfortable driving long distances by myself without a parent. For the first couple of years, the trips mainly consisted of driving to see family on my dad’s side in both Mississippi and Florida. Due to my interest in road maps and paying attention to the Southern countryside while my dad drove my siblings and me to my grandparent’s house outside of Tallahassee, I knew the route like the back of my hand.

After successfully visiting relatives by myself, I finally mustered the courage to take a trip to a vacation destination and stay in a hotel room by myself. I decided a few days after my birthday in April of 2016 to see my grandparents for a couple of days and then visit the Southern beach staple, Panama City Beach, Florida. Although I had not been there since I was a teen during spring break, I read enough about this place to realize it was the perfect destination to try traveling alone with a disability as it was relatively safe and close enough to home that I could pack up and leave if things did not work out.

Small talk is challenging not only for me but for many people who have Aspergers. Through years of practice, I mustered up the courage to start a conversation with the evening desk manager on duty at the hotel. I learned she was originally from Louisiana and survived Hurricane Katrina in her attic. That prompted me to share my story of my relatives in southern Mississippi who also experienced Hurricane Katrina, although well inland, and how they were without power for several weeks.

Another small talk moment I was proud of was eating lunch at a restaurant at Pier Park, a huge outdoor shopping mall. I told the waitress I was visiting for my birthday. She offered me a free dessert. Another aspect of having Aspergers is that we are honest. Some say someone must teach a person with the Aspergers how to lie. Although I told her it was not my actual birthday that day, she offered me a free desert anyways for my honesty.

Another small talk moment I was proud of was eating lunch at a restaurant at Pier Park, a huge outdoor shopping mall. I told the waitress I was visiting for my birthday. She offered me a free dessert. Another aspect of having Aspergers is that we are honest. Some say someone must teach a person with the Aspergers how to lie. Although I told her it was not my actual birthday that day, she offered me a free desert anyways for my honesty.

When the dessert was brought out, the staff sang happy birthday to me. I usually do not like it when restaurants bring the whole crew out to wish someone a happy birthday because of the sensory issues and having attention drawn to myself. However, I am glad I took that risk as someone paid my tab. Although I never got to meet the person who made this kind gesture, I became not only grateful but also learned the unspoken social rule that I would use later on to pay for a meal for someone you do not know.

Fortunately, not all of my meals were eaten alone. One of my grandparent’s friends has a daughter who lives just outside Panama City Beach. She and I slowly enjoyed our fresh Gulf seafood while discussing our experiences with special needs people and her husband’s job as a priest in the local Anglican Church.

Of course, I walked along the beach along at Saint Andrews State Park. It was soothing hearing the waves crash against the shore. There were a few people along the beach, including a family with preschool children. Otherwise, I mostly had the beach to myself.

My trip was not complete without visiting Gulf World Marine Park. Although I did not swim with the dolphins, I read that one of the therapies used with people on the spectrum involves interacting with animals as a way of calming the nervous tendencies that come with having the disorder. However, I did get a picture of me touching a dolphin for my mom.

The vacation was mostly sensory friendly. Even though I usually do not frequent clubs and bars due to the loud music and the enclosed places, I enjoyed the open layout at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, which allowed the sound to escape out onto the sidewalks of Pier Park so everyone can hear those hoping to make it to Nashville without feeling anxious.

Eventually, I had to travel back to Huntsville, Alabama. The vacation itself was a change in routine, so I thought to myself; why not take a different way back to Interstate 65 at Montgomery. I drove through Enterprise, located in southeast Alabama, where I saw the Boil Weevil monument. This statue is the only one in the world dedicated to a pest which caused farmers to switch from planting cotton to planting peanuts and revived the agriculture industry in that part of the state.

I had a great time at Panama City Beach. The best part was there were no crowds as it was the slow season. Driving along Front Beach Road was a breeze. With my Aspergers, I am not sure I could handle mingling with the high volume of tourists during the summer. The Southern hospitality was on display during my trip and gave me the confidence to make other trips by myself.

If you have a memory of a trip you would like to share, comment in the section below. Also, subscribe to the blog in the space below.

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