This spring I traveled to Israel with my grade. I want to share with you my experience and what I learned about myself.
My first trip to Israel was in 2016 with my grandfather, cousin, and a family friend. Looking back, I could not have done this year’s trip if I was the same person I was back then. My coping skills were not what they are today. I melted down a lot and I did not adapt well to change. However, over time, I have gained vital skills which allowed me to go on my 9th grade trip. I can generally keep my emotions in check, I am more flexible when plans change and my social skills have improved. Still, I navigated certain challenges that I attributed to being on the Autism Spectrum, and I think it is important to share the valuable lessons I learned.
I had a panic attack when boarding our flight to Israel. After three hours of waiting to go through baggage and security, we arrived at our gate, at which point I waited 30-45 minutes to board the plane and to find my assigned seat. When I finally boarded, it was chaos. Everyone was looking for their seats and some of us were confused about when we could switch seats. By this point, I was stressed, exhausted and I wanted to sit down. I did not know the people I was sitting with, and one of my classmates was already sitting in my assigned seat. My seat was in the middle of the back and far from adult chaperones. A flight attendant was yelling at me to sit, and I finally lost it and had a panic attack. I was so stressed that I could not even move. I do not remember how long it took to finally sit down in my seat. I believe it was somewhere between 3-5 minutes, but it felt like an eternity. The fact that this happened in front of people from school who I did not know was very embarrassing.
Reflecting on this, I know that certain panic attacks are unavoidable. Considering the 3+ hours of stress and confusion, I could have panicked a lot earlier – but I stayed calm as long as I could. My takeaway is that I need to plan for situations like this. I doubt I am the only one who has had a horrible experience in an airport/airplane, so next time I will prepare for the worst-case scenarios and figure out how I should react and adapt. I also hope you can take away from my story that when you are seeing someone who is experiencing a panic attack, it is important to be kind and give them a few minutes to calm down. I am extremely grateful for my peers who showcased this type of empathy. After a ten-hour flight, I was able to land safely in Israel and I was excited to start the first leg of my trip.
The Dead Sea
At the end of the first few days of our trip, after visiting David Ben-Gurion’s grave, hiking in Ein Ovdat, climbing up and leading services on Masada, we went to the Dead Sea. While most of my peers complained about cuts that reacted with saltwater, I experienced a strong reaction to a different sensory input that was especially hard for me.
My skin felt greasy when I got out of the Dead Sea, and that is something that is very uncomfortable to me. I felt very unclean when my greasy hands touched anything and this made changing very difficult. After 10-15 minutes, I finished changing. I washed my hands obsessively before sitting on the bus. I also insisted that I didn’t sit next to anyone. That might sound like I was selfish but I was genuinely worried that sitting with someone would make me feel even worse. I was trying to avoid panicking and focused on staying calm.
After the Dead sea, we drove to Jerusalem where we had a lot of fun (and exhausting) activities. I herded sheep, explored the Hezekiah Water Tunnel, participated in an archaeological dig, and attended Shabbat services in Jerusalem. By Shabbat afternoon, I was exhausted. I had signed up for an exciting old city tour that afternoon but I felt very conflicted. I wanted to do the tour, but I also knew myself and I needed to relax.
Beyond just being tired, a break from the hustle and bustle of a trip like this is very valuable for me and other Autistic people. Many Autistic people, including myself, monitor their “energy levels”. For example, when we are fatigued we may need to do something like take deep breaths, have a snack, take a warm shower, or nap so that we can get back to being productive. Sometimes we may have too much energy that we need to let out. For example, when I am sitting for a while in class, I find myself shaking my leg. It was a tough decision but I decided to take a break so that I would feel better by the time we had our nighttime activity. Listening to my body was a good choice, especially since I got to visit the old city later that week.
The second part of our trip took us to Tel Aviv and up north. I met up with some family friends, hiked around one of Israel’s tallest mountains, dipped my toes in the Kineret, tried a sabich sandwich and schwarma (both are amazing!), visited Har Bental and did a little shopping at a mall.
At the end of one of our days, I had to navigate my sensitivity to noise. I am far from the only Autistic person who has a hard time when it comes to noise. I remember my worst panic attack from 7th Grade was at a loud, crowded bat mitzvah party in a very small place with nowhere that was quiet. Within a few minutes of being dropped off, I was already panicking, and within a half-hour, I was picked up by a family friend. While my tolerance has improved, I still avoid loud, crowded places.
The nighttime activity was a drum circle. I was nervous but planned to give it a short try and leave if I needed to. Ultimately, I decided not to go, and I think that was the best decision for me at the time. I believe that even if I had given it a shot, I would have left. Not everyone will like every activity, but I think it is important to recognize that some activities may be stressful for someone who has sensitivity to certain sensory inputs like noise. If you are planning that type of activity or a loud party, it is always helpful to have a quieter place where people with sensitivity to noise can calm down.
We returned to Jerusalem for the final two days of our trip. We first visited the Vad HaYeled memorial (Holocaust Children’s Memorial) at Yad Vashem. This was one of the most somber moments of the trip. I thought about my great-granduncle, Freydel Galperin, who died at the age of 4, as we remembered the many innocent children who died during the Holocaust. We then visited Har Hertzl and the Kotel, which I found to be the most spiritual and meaningful moments of the trip.
Our final day was the opposite – it was all about shopping and having fun! I got some new kippas, books, a star of David necklace and I ate a lot of good food!
As our plane landed, I thought about the experience I just had and how I would not have been able to do this a few years ago. My response to changing scenarios would have been much more dramatic. I did not know enough about how to handle myself. I did not know enough about how to navigate social situations.
When I thought about how I felt, I realized I was proud of myself. Each year, I have worked hard to overcome the challenges I face. In addition to how I handled the transition to high school, this trip is proof of the progress I have made. I took advantage of almost all of the activities on the trip. And when I needed a break, I was thoughtful – is this what I want, will this help me? I took advantage of my bus rides to relax and read.
What was I most proud of? I successfully balanced being part of the group with being me.