Attn: Autistics should be aware that “social norms” are subject to things like regional location.
You may have spent your entire life learning what the rules of your local communities are. You may have even integrated them deeply enough into your brain’s Global Framework that you only need to spend the baseline two spoons to operate them.
But if you plan to travel to a place that is far enough away past these regional breaks, you might find that the rules have changed, and your hard-earned Social Skills™ are now surprisingly expensive Party Fouls™.
We all know that of the biggest causes of anxiety for Autistic people is that you never know what the magically established rules of the upcoming setting will be. But you can bet that everyone else will somehow telepathically know, and you will somehow stick out for not knowing. Don’t panic! Comparing Social Rules is a special interest of mine, so I have lovingly compiled a few tips to help you pick up on social cues in new cultures with ease. (Yes, even if you don’t speak the language.)
Imagine, if you will, a map of the continental United States. Now imagine this map is cut into quadrants: Pacific Northwest, Southwest, Northeast, and Southeast. Of course, there will be some sub-quadrants: New England, the Midwest, the Dustbowl/Bible-belt, the Deep South, and Florida, just to name a few. In each region, the people are connected by land, cuisine (informed by what grows on that land and the history of the people who cooked and served there), history, religion, imports, accessibility to immigrants, you name it. Myriad factors serve to determine why exactly certain acceptable practices in Washington, DC, are not acceptable in Pittsburgh. This leads me to my first pro-tip:
Learn something about somewhere you don’t live.
Now, if you’re autistic and reading this, first of all, Hi, I love you. Secondly, you’re already extremely equipped for this tip! You know your special interest? Add a global component to it. You love everything about blades and weapons? Learn about how the early peoples of Japan made swords and compare that to how the Nordic Viking peoples made weapons. Find a comparison link to today. Bam- you now own a tiny share of interest in that new culture. Start learning lots of fips and tidwibts about a bunch of different places. Allow that information to auto-upload to your Global Framework. Create new neurons on the Culture pathway. (you get it.)
I have had the immense privilege of living in the Pacific Northwest, the American South, the Midatlantic, Appalachia, the north of England, and rural Japan (plus visiting a bunch of other places.) I think the precision of locator words like “north of” and “rural” are important when describing my experiences because the data that is uploaded to my personal Global Framework from a rural area is much different than the data from somewhere extremely metropolitan like Tokyo. With this expanded category of describing words, I’m able to categorize more precise delineations across cultures that at first glance are considered monolithic. This leads us to pro-tip two:
People who are different from you are NOT A MONOLITH.
Divest yourself of that idea before you travel. This is the kind of thing that requires a bit of work: you have to actively figure out what stereotypes you know and might be projecting. Then, do a bit of research to figure out how to dispel those myths for yourself. This will help you be more open to new bits of culture and accept that other practices may be different, and dare I say, potentially better than your own.
I know, this is hard because you have spent your whole life building your Global Framework, and you are confident that it is the most efficient and best Global Framework. And it was! Until you began to expand it.
Now that you’ve established that there is room for new branches on your Global Framework, it is time to learn how to fill those branches with the right type of information to prepare you for the constantly-shifting social mores of cultural “norms.”
I like to break down culture into a few categories and learn a few different things from each category. This way, I happen to know a lot of rudimentary things about France, and Japan, and New Orleans (for example). As I learn about additional cultures, I’m able to quickly process the information into those pre-approved branches.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to do this for a whole bunch of places (unless you want to), but if you know you’re headed to a different quadrant or sub-quadrant of the US for instance, here’s a few things to learn before you go! Also known as Tip 3:
Study your Culture Categories and pre-load your Global Framework
- Food: why do they eat their staples? is it because they’re close to water, or grow their own grain, or have lots of tropical fruit trees?
- Common Specific sayings/phrases: Yes you should know how to say hi, bye, yes, no, thank you, toilet, wine, and chicken nuggets in every language. But think beyond that: Do they do y’all/y’uns/yinz? Do they call “pants” pants or trousers?
- The most popular sports or leisure past-times.
- Basic history of the place: Did they used to be a primarily agrarian area? Or mostly industrial? How do they make their money now? What kinds of people live there? Was there a giant fire or gold boom that defines the local attitudes and turns of phrase?
- Now learn a bit more of the “hidden” history to learn the whole story: Were the colonized? When? By the British or Spanish? Were there slaves or the like? A big devastation in the city or culture’s history that informs their current way of life? This is especially important when visiting popular beach vacation destinations like Hawaii, the Caribbean, South America, or “cheap tropical destinations” like Bali or Thailand. And always, always, always find out about the indigenous communities before you visit, because likely your destination is on stolen ground.
- Find out where the queer people meet: because if all else fails, queer people will usually accept you.
These are my personal go-to categories because they fall in my special interests. Feel free to use them for your Global Framework (particularly the one about colonization and Indigenous people), but also feel free to adjust the categories to the things that are most interesting to you!
Tip four is something you might already do:
Pre-load your social script by deferring to the most honorable version.
Not sure about bowing or shaking hands? Defer to a bow because it is better to be over-formal than informal. As with any social situations, it’s good to watch what others are doing to avoid faux pas, and don’t be afraid to ask! Especially while traveling, people are so kind to newcomers who show active interest in learning about the local culture. It’s actually the best excuse to not know about the expected “norms” and gives you a great opportunity to unmask, be yourself, all while building your Global Framework.
Finally, tip five is another list. Best used for those who are ready for boots-on-the-ground culture and learning immersion once you arrive!
I present a few itinerary staples that you can use in literally every new place you go:
Find the Library! No matter where you travel, the public library is a ready-made community hub. You can ask questions, ask for directions, ask for cultural information, and find more locally-attended (and often free) activities! In other countries, they will often have bilingual librarians just because English is often a second-language.
Plus, everybody knows Librarians are nice and safe for autistic people because they are Holy Knowledge Keepers.
Give yourself a Walking Wiki Tour. This might be best done with a buddy, but essentially use Google maps to find the name of interesting old buildings, and then use Wikipedia to learn some information about the building while you look at it. This is great for learning about old churches/cathedrals, and other random ruins.
Plus, most public parks or statues or other monuments usually have information plaques with their name on them, so you could just Wikipedia that, too. You could also Wiki/Google the names of neighborhoods or specific streets if they’re famous enough (Canal Street in New Orleans comes to mind) and find more information that will lend to your Cultural Framework.
Eat Local Food. Now, I know food aversions make it difficult to try unknown foods, but I find that once again, preparation is the best coping mechanism for this. Learn about what kinds of food might be served in the new place (sashimi is raw fish, so you can expect a strange texture) so you can either practice or mentally prepare in advance!
For instance, I don’t love sashimi in the US. It’s always so slimy. But in Japan, it happens to be so fresh (and probably less processed, let’s be honest) that I can try at least one or two. But going to local food establishments rather than chains allows you to give back to the community whose culture you are consuming/sharing, while also allowing you to learn about the culture by asking questions or hearing about the founding stories of the establishment.
- Learn something about somewhere you don’t live.
- People who are different from you are NOT A MONOLITH.
- Study your Culture Categories and pre-load your Global Framework.
- Pre-load your social script by deferring to the most honorable version.
- Tried and true itinerary staples: Go to the library; Walking Wiki Tour; Eat Local Food.
 You can reasonably assume moving forward that the author’s use of quotation marks denotes heavy sarcasm. The sarcasm is wryly twisted around the Truth that Neurotypicals Love to Ignore: “Normal” is a pure construct that is entirely subjective, and worse, sinisterly bent to serve the furtherization of white supremacy.
 If you don’t know, now you know.
 My reference for this is every Autistic person I have ever had a conversation with and also myself.
 You’re welcome.
 This comes with a 49-83% guarantee, depending on your baseline level of anxiety and agoraphobia.
 Get it?? Interest! Because it’s a special—okay nevermind.
 Met with executive dysfunction because you struggle to motivate yourself to learn things outside of your special interest zone? Refer to tip one.
 This works globally, as well!
 Sign Language is also different from country to country, so if you already sign, consider picking up some of the differences in the local Sign Language as well. Particularly in areas that technically also speak English, like Britain or Australia.
 Disregard this if you’re homophobic.
 I know it is traumatic to potentially fail or be rejected in any and every social situation. Autistic people are prone to RSD. I find it helps to remember that everything is subjective, even among the accepted rules. Plus, when you’re traveling, you’ll probably never see those people again. It’s okay to take a deep breath and drop the constant vigilance for a few days so you can have fun. You’re doing great.
 What other tips do y’all want to know? Top three things to put in your travel “small talk” script? Tips for minimizing routine-break anxiety while traveling?