31-year-old Shalese Heard is on the autism spectrum, but she’s not letting that get in the way of any of her dreams, and she’s out to prove to the world that people with autism can do anything they set their minds to, just like anyone else.
Shalese, who lives in Georgia, already has more than 10 countries under her travel belt. She’s been documenting her life as a solo traveler on social media since 2016, and her followers know her as the “Autistic Travel Goddess.”
Shalese works hard to present an autism-friendly perspective on her social media pages and empower people on the spectrum to explore the world in whatever way works best for them.
“We live in a world that’s always telling us we’re not enough,” says Shalese. “People are always shunning us for no reason, and they seem to always want to tell us that we’re less than others.”
Diagnosed at the age of two and nonverbal until the age of five, Shalese says she wasn’t always this confident. She remembers lots of moments during her school-age years in which she was left out or made to feel inferior.
“In my early years, I took speech therapy to learn phrases and figures of speech, because I didn’t know how to speak,” she recalls. “And I took a lot of social skills classes as well.” Her inability to intuit her peers’ social cues left her with bullies instead of friends, and she often felt misunderstood.
Learning about travel, however, opened Shalese’s eyes, broadened her horizons, and gave her the confidence she needed to become the person she is today.
At the age of 12, Shalese first became interested in travel after she watched a documentary on the Discovery Channel about an expedition to the Arctic Ocean. She was fascinated by the indigenous cultures of the region and began reading encyclopedias and geography textbooks to learn more about new places she hoped to one day visit.
She found a personal connection in the study of travel that she hadn’t been able to find in school, connecting each nation’s history to a part of her own story.
“I felt these countries were my friends and they understood me. They were the only places I could retreat to where I didn’t feel bullied, ostracized, and different,” says Shalese.
When Shalese was 25, she decided to take her first solo trip to Vancouver, much to her parents’ surprise. They were concerned about her ability to interact with others in a foreign country and manage her own emotions if she experienced a meltdown, but she went on the trip anyway and loved every minute.
Since then, with the exception of during the pandemic, Shalese has been traveling at least once a month. Sometimes her excursions are just short weekend jaunts in domestic locales, but she’s gone as far as to trek around Europe for a month on her own.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that people with autism are incapable of being in a position to afford travel, based on the statistic that more than 80% of us are underemployed or unemployed,” says Shalese. “People also have the misconception that we’re childlike and incapable of handling the challenges that come with traveling. That’s not fair to us because our standard of what healthy functioning is different from what the standard for a neurotypical is.”
Shalese has self-published books on traveling with autism and listed her car on a car-sharing platform to make money for her travels. She also holds a part-time teaching position at an online business school and develops online classes to help people with autism boost their confidence and experience the world. In other words, she’s managing quite well, and there’s really nothing childlike about it.
Shalese has also worked hard to minimize her triggers so that she can avoid melting down in public on a trip. These triggers include crowds and changes of plans, and she schedules everything in advance to avoid those as best she can. Stimming also helps her avoid a meltdown when she’s confronted with a trigger. It has taken some major introspection and work to get to this point, but she’s coping better than ever before.
“I tend to shake my leg a lot when I’m sitting or pace back and forth. It helps me stay centered and focused whenever there’s a change in routine so I can think about my next steps,” she says.
Shalese also has certain preferences for her travels, both to soothe her autism and just for enjoyment. “My hotel has to have a pool because water stimulates me in a positive way and helps me get my bearings,” she explains. She also looks for a variety of restaurants that can cater to her food sensitivities.
“Travel to me is all about gaining confidence. Don’t let anybody talk you out of it. Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do it,” says Shalese. “Gain that confidence by knowing what you want and just go for it. Don’t be ashamed in the way in which you’re able to travel.”