Tips for Studying and Living Abroad If You're on the Autism Spectrum

Ava X. Rigelhaupt
Panorama of Florence and Saint Mary.
Panorama of Florence and Saint Mary.

I am a senior at Sarah Lawrence College, and I am on the autism spectrum. Recently, I completed a semester abroad in Florence, Italy. Studying in a foreign country is a unique experience for everyone, but for a student with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), speaking a foreign language and simply living day to day in an unknown place can pose additional challenges. No doubt other ASD students are interested and considering studying abroad, but may be afraid or hesitant to take the leap. I am glad I took the leap, and want to inspire others to take the leap, too.

Choosing a Program and Preparing

Multiple thoughts and questions kept me up at night as I considered the prospect of studying abroad, such as: What is the process of finding a program that fits my needs? What parts of the world interest me, do I want to learn a new language? Does the program have a physical presence and staff in the host city? Will my credits and financial aid transfer? Can I get the accommodations I need? Will there be enough structure, planned trips etc. or will I be on my own most of the time? Would living with a host family or in a dorm be best for me? Will I be able to adjust to the forced break in my beloved routine, something that living in a foreign country necessitates?

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Pondering these questions led me to choose a program in Florence, Italy through Middlebury College. I wanted to be in Europe. It was an established and well-respected program. Everything was transferable. There was a disability office that specialized in accommodations abroad. They were very open to my specific needs such as living with a host family in close proximity to the school, as I’m not the best with directions and wayfinding. In Italy, Middlebury has their own building and staff. Middlebury’s commitment to immersion in the local culture meant there were a lot of trips, excursions to different cities and museum tours, which satisfied my desire to explore and get to know Italy.

Getting the paperwork and supports in order and reading the online handbook really helped. There were links to other university and professional resources, which brought up more questions: “What barriers might I encounter?” “How will I overcome them?” “How is ASD viewed in my host country?” “Should I disclose to my homestay family or teachers?” Your answers may be different than mine, but answering before I went lowered my anxiety. It took a lot of research, working with my college’s study abroad office, Middlebury’s liaison, discussing my fears and trepidations with my mom, and talking with students who had been before. Yet it was all worth it, because my comfort level was raised enough to believe I could handle four months in Italy. The program was a perfect choice for me.

Travel Considerations

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I recommend double-checking with your airline on how to receive assistance for passengers with disabilities, to which you are entitled, if you want to use those services. I requested assistance navigating for my connecting flight. In America, we asked for a gate pass so my mom could wait with me until departure. Upon arrival in Florence, I arranged for someone to meet me and accompany me to my homestay. It happened to be the program director! She even talked to my host parents and found the best walking route to the school.

Life Abroad 

Oh, Italy, how I miss you. Mi manchi. (I miss you in Italian). My experience in Italy was even better than I imagined. Having autism impacts me differently, maybe even less, while abroad. My ASD challenges present in different ways. Abroad, I was clearly a foreigner, and foreigners get some social leeway. For instance, not catching on to sarcasm or idiosyncratic language is expected. Cultural differences and social faux pas are the norm; there are less weird stares about why this girl “isn’t getting it.” My ASD quirks and cultural differences or language barriers all became interchangeable, less noticeable. As a result, I often feel more accepted by international people.

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I also joined a program for European students studying abroad where I met students from all around the world. The group, Erasmus, planned day trips, wine tastings and walking tours of the city. It was another structured way to expand my circle and the places I could go. This group became my community. I wanted to find a community abroad, and I learned that creating a community in a new place it takes effort and is often intimidating, but if even one attempt works, you’ll be happier, more comfortable, and feel at home in a new world.

And Now?

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat, except minus the homework! Are there some things that I would do differently? Absolutely. I would bring fewer clothes. (Insert mental image of me carrying two large suitcases up three flights of stairs in a small Italian hallway.) I would also make an effort to connect with one person in your program before arriving. There’s probably a list of students you can contact ahead of time. Knowing even one person can alleviate some of the stress of feeling alone and far away.

I would caution you, however, not to just hang out with your “American posse” and speak only English, or you’ll be labeled as “the Americans uninterested in our culture.” Larger cities in Western Europe are not like camping out in the middle of nowhere. There’s a Sephora or Starbucks within walking distance. With that in mind, be open to the local culture and people. Try to speak their language and learn their routines. Maybe you’ll like them better than yours!  A smile from the waitress at your favorite cafe who knows your lunch order is the ultimate compliment!

I hope this article helps you feel more ready to consider a study abroad opportunity. I know it changed me and possibly my future.

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