By Kimberly Gerry-Tucker
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Oswald, a self-described nomad with wanderlust. She is a world traveler, full of heart and purpose. Katie approached me via social media and I couldn’t help but think…I want to be Katie when I grow up!
As Executive Director of a nonprofit called “Full Spectrum Agency for Autistic Adults,” in Ann Arbor, Michigan, her organization’s vision of acceptance and inclusion, aligns with Art of Autism’s values. Involved with study abroad programs and the Peace Corps Masters International program, this young woman really is going places. Believing strongly in support and autistic-led community, Katie’s nonprofit’s main goal is “meaningful opportunities for autistics” with “acceptance, respect, and open hearts and minds.” Meet Katie Oswald! Here is our interview:
KIM: Hi Katie. You have been so busy. You’ve traveled to 18 countries on all seven continents, done a podcast with JR Reed at ”not weird, just autistic,” and given talks at Autism Conferences. What is your background?
KATIE: In high school I played in a band and worked in the service industry. I have a BS in statistics from Michigan State University. I did three study abroad programs – two in Russia and one in Antarctica and Argentina. I ended up going to Clemson University for an MS in Applied Economics and Statistics. During my degree, I went to Uganda for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
KIM: You have some one-of-a-kind photos, what an experience!
KATIE: It changed my life beyond words. I lived by myself in a rural village called Kiziranfumbi. There was one other volunteer in our village for the first six months, but after he left, it was just me and the villagers. I had to integrate and adapt to the culture to learn the trust of the people in my village before I could create programs. This took a few months, after which I started a variety of programs, including a village savings and loan association for women and a computer skills training program.
KIM: Now that is a life changing experience, both for you, and for the people you helped in Kiziranfumbi. Savings and loan and computer training are invaluable skills for us all, for those of us who are autistic, like myself, and also for people in general. I am sure you encountered many undiagnosed autistic people in your travels but I suspect autism isn’t on the radar in many of the countries you visited.
KATIE: It’s true that autism isn’t on the radar there. In most developing countries I think you’ll find little to no awareness of autism. For many people in developing countries, they are just trying to survive from day to day, make sure they know where their meals are coming from today, and if they have anything extra, maybe get medications for the kids or pay school fees so they can keep going to school. In a situation like that, there is no time to think about much else.
KIM: The smiles! Was it easy for you to absorb the differences in cultures?
KATIE: It is a real challenge to integrate into a new culture, but it’s a challenge I enjoyed for the most part. Life in a developing country might sound terrible to some westerners, but you’ll find happy people everywhere. In some ways this simple way of living is liberating. I think we don’t fully understand how detrimental it is for our brains to be constantly processing mass amounts of information and data, as we always are in western culture. In this respect, I like Ugandan culture more than U.S.
KIM: That statement is powerful and a reminder to all of us to be not only grateful and humble but aware that the world is a bigger place than what we see around us. The other day I saw a pop-up ad on social media for adhesive strips that are applied to the top of one’s eyelids to combat “droopy” eyelids. When I saw this ad, I thought of what you said about Ugandan culture, about priorities and about being happy. Are many westerners really so concerned, I thought, about whether their eyelids droop, and willing to pay money so they are ‘lifted,’ when in fact so much of the world is making do with issues like having no plumbing and little to eat. These are some of the cultural differences I imagine must have been difficult for you when you were living there.
KATIE: The things you think are going to be hard are relatively easy to get used to – no running water, intermittent electricity, no entertainment options, and little variety of food, for example. These end up being no big deal. Using a latrine is easy, bucket bathing is really enjoyable, and having time to think was, for me, a welcome change from the fast pace and constant overwhelm of the U.S.
KIM: Bucket bathing! I’ve done a little of that myself. I come from a humble background and often I was instructed to “save the water for your father. He’ll need a good soak when he gets home from work.” We had well water that ran dry rather quickly and then had to build back up. I often “bathed” from a cache of warm water in the bathroom sink. And yet, as poor as we were at times, I had access to caring teachers in a public school educational system, which is so easy to take for granted, and I did. What is your take-away on some of the deeper cultural issues you encountered?
KATIE: These are more challenging to accept. Like the poor treatment of animals, the fatalist attitude that makes everyone seem so apathetic at times, and the mob justice due to lack of public law enforcement. I came to terms with each of these over time to some extent. The people are competing with the animals for food, so the presence of too many stray dogs can literally be a life and death situation. Having no voice in civic issues and government forces people to take matters into their own hands in terms of law enforcement. This is also a survival issue. It takes a long time to truly understand and accept this, and of course, it made me really angry at times. I would say it takes a year or more to start understanding the deeper cultural issues, so this depth of understanding didn’t happen until I was over half way through my service. But like I said, you will find happy people in any country you visit.
KIM: What is the arts scene there, because for me, and so many people, art serves as a therapeutic outlet and an important way to express oneself.
KATIE: There is not an arts scene in the way we think of an arts scene, but music is a part of every day life.
KIM: That is good to hear. I believe that all human beings need art in some way, and music is an art unto itself.
KATIE: You will hear Ugandans singing while they work as you walk through the village. It is common to see people singing and dancing, whether it is to hip hop or traditional Ugandan music. It is often part of nonprofit programming. For example, in my village, music was used extensively in an HIV prevention program that used improv to teach young people about HIV.
KIM: That’s fascinating. You are making a difference in the world.
KATIE: My experience in Peace Corps made me realize how capable I really am, and it sparked my passion for helping others through nonprofit work. When I returned to the states, I worked for a nonprofit in Detroit as the Manager of Programs and Operations for a women’s entrepreneurship initiative. Later I worked as a Senior Analyst & Evaluator for a small consulting firm, where I worked on evaluation for a large funder of nonprofit programs in Southeast Michigan. I learned a lot about nonprofit management, program evaluation, and grant writing, but I also learned that I don’t thrive at all in a typical 9-5 work setting.
KIM: Many of us do not thrive in that setting, which is one of the reasons I work from home in software. Let’s talk about how you are helping autistic adults, because so many of us, once we “age out” of autism support geared toward children…we don’t know what to do or where to turn. Travel truly is a life-changing and perspective-altering experience and yet so many people don’t have that experience and don’t know where to begin or how to go about planning trips abroad. You’ve started your own consulting company,Katie, to help autistic adults learn how to travel and being location independent as you are, you have been to 18 countries on all seven continents.
KATIE: Yes, I have a travel company to help other autistic travelers to change their lives through travel, and I recently launched my own nonprofit for autistic adults. So, I’m not using my degree much at all, but I wouldn’t have reached this point in my life without it, so I’m grateful for the experience.
KIM: As an autistic person myself, I can think of so many ways a travel coach would come in handy. What kinds of things do you help people with? Let’s say I am planning a trip to Greece. In what ways would you be of help?
KATIE: So, it varies from client to client. If you are planning a trip to Greece and you aren’t an experienced traveler or you don’t want to do all the planning yourself, I would help you find flights, lodging, activities, etc. and help you plan your experience.
KIM: I have no clue about that stuff so I may be seeking your help at some point. 🙂
KATIE: We would work together to figure out what you definitely want to do and see, and which experiences are optional, so that you schedule some breaks and free time into your trip. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is overscheduling. You definitely want to have some gaps in your itinerary for when you find something that wasn’t advertised on TripAdvisor, like a more local experience that you won’t find on the internet.
KIM: You are spot on about that. Downtime is important for so many reasons.
KATIE: Yes, you don’t want to get overwhelmed or burned out. That is how people end up coming home more exhausted than they were before. As an autistic person, I sometimes need whole days off from site seeing. Each individual is different, so I would work with you to help put together a balanced and flexible itinerary.
For those who dislike making phone calls, I will contact the airports and airlines on your behalf to find out what accommodations can be made for you and what documentation, if any, you will need to carry with you. In the U.S., TSA Cares will let you go through a separate security process so you don’t have to stand in line with the mob, which for some, can cause a meltdown.
KIM: I never knew that was an option!
KATIE: Different airlines have different policies, but many will let you pre-board and get situated before everyone else boards. Some will send a staff person to walk you to the gate. Most will do what they can in-flight to accommodate your needs, but you do need to talk with the airline in advance.
I would do the same with your hotels or other accommodations, tour companies, and other service providers, depending on your specific needs, to make sure you have the best possible travel experience.
If you need help figuring out how to get a visa, what immunizations you might need for the countries you are visiting, how to get travel insurance, and pretty much anything else you may find overwhelming about planning a trip, I can help with that. It’s very individualized service.
In addition to the travel planning, I can coach you via video calls and talk through different scenarios that you may experience during travel, so you feel confident and ready to travel. This is helpful for first time travelers.
KATIE: My travel experiences have had a huge impact on who I am, which has influenced the approach I take with clients. We talk a lot about expectations and what you want to get out of your travel experience, and I encourage clients to set personal goals for themselves. For example, say you want to become more patient. Travel in developing countries is perfect for working on patience, since nothing happens according to plan. So, your goals can influence your destination, your mode of transportation, your activities, and other aspects of your trip. I would have you rate your patience level before and after the trip and get additional feedback six months after you return. It can take some time to process the impact a trip has had, so I like to get feedback after some time has passed.
KIM: Advice for first-time travelers?
KATIE: For some travelers, I may recommend a practice trip. If you haven’t traveled before, a solo trip to India is probably not the best first choice! Something as simple as being a tourist in your own town or a nearby town can help you prepare for longer and more long-distance trips in the future.
KIM: Can you tell me about Full Spectrum Agency, what inspired you and how it came about?
KATIE: Well, I had been looking for a while for a meetup group for autistic people. This was early in 2018. I found a few that were specifically for Aspergers, which were only for those with low support needs, but I couldn’t find anything that was inclusive of everyone on the spectrum. So, I started that myself. It is an autistic led group for autistic adults.
KIM: This reminds me of a wonderful advocate I had in the 90s who worked pro-bono with my family. He wanted to start a meet-up like the one you described but was discouraged from doing so and never did. I remember him saying, “I don’t think I can make this happen. Given the loner traits of so many autistic people I know, I’d probably set up a time and day for a group to meet and then I’d end up with an empty room.”
Given that autistic people can be extroverted, introverted, outgoing or inside their own heads, how would you address what my friend and advocate had to say about autistic meet-ups and his prediction they probably wouldn’t work?
KATIE: I found that there was a huge need in my region. I expected to go the first time and have at most one or two participants. But I was surprised when seven people showed up. We meet 2-3 times per month, and I don’t think we have ever had a smaller group than that and we often have as many as 12.
KIM: I went to “social skills group” for years and ended up making a friend or two that I shared activities and time with, outside the group. I think of them all; from time to time and still keep in touch with a few, so I can attest to the fact that meet-ups are a great thing. It is hard sometimes to find members of ”our tribe” and a specific meet-up can be essential in meeting like-minded folks we wouldn’t have otherwise met.
KATIE: It’s different when it is all autistic people, in my opinion. A lot of what makes us anxious about going out into society is being judged for things like stimming and acting “different.” In a room full of autistic people, there is rocking and hand flapping, and people just accept it. It’s no big deal. If you need a break, you can come and go from the room without being judged. You can be nonverbal and that’s okay, too.
KIM: That in particular is dear to my heart, as I am a sometimes nonverbal person. Writing and art are my strongest expressions of self.
KATIE: I tell our members that their presence is their participation. Some people communicate through writing and drawing, and that is just fine.
KIM: How did people find your group?
KATIE: I use meetup.com, which is largely the reason so many people found out about he group in the beginning. We have 74 members in the online group and about 20 who come to meetups somewhat regularly. The group expanded really rapidly, and as I realized how great the need was for autistic adults who are feeling really isolated to have a group of people they can talk to on a regular basis, I decided to launch it into a nonprofit so I can expand our programming.
I’ve partnered with local nonprofits like Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living and the Arc of Livingston County to find space for our meetups and expand into other counties. I had people driving an hour or more each way to attend a two hour meetup!
KIM: Well, there you go! That’s proof there is a need! For a few years I attended “social skills groups” myself, as I said earlier, and I was willing to travel a half hour there and back by taxi (I don’t drive) to get there. How is an autistic meet-up different from, let’s say, the social skills group I met with?
KATIE: We meet 2-3 times per month…
KIM: That’s similar to the one I attended as well.
KATIE: Two of our meetings are typically discussion groups, which I facilitate in part as a silent meeting to accommodate those who are nonverbal or less verbal, and the second half as a verbal discussion to accommodate those who like to talk more. During the silent meeting portion, after I introduce our topic, we spend a little time writing our thoughts and ideas on sticky notes. We stick them up on the white board and everyone has a chance to read them before we open it up to discussion. This makes it safe for people to share their thoughts anonymously and doesn’t create the pressure of, “oh no, that guy just said what I was going to say. Now I don’t have anything to contribute!” It makes it more inclusive and I’ve had a really great response so far to this type of meetup structure.
Shifting the focus from “learning social skills” to “socializing” makes it less about fixing a perceived deficit and more about community. People learn new social skills by interacting with others and practice their skills without the added pressure from the expectation of learning a skill.
KIM: I have to ask, do you support any art programs?
KATIE: We are starting to do a lot more activities now that we have so many members. I’m looking forward to doing a lot more art related programming. The arts are a way we communicate with others, and it is empowering for autistic people to find their artistic voice, whether it is in visual arts, writing, music, or another art form. In the autism community we talk a lot about alternative communication and people often think of a computer that speaks for us, but the arts are also an important alternative communication method for autistic people.
KIM: You speak the truth.
KATIE: There are a lot of arts programs in Ann Arbor, and often we schedule meetups around existing events. For example, we are going once a month to a folk song jam-along at a local church that is run by someone from their congregation and that has been a ton of fun! I think it has been particularly empowering for our nonverbal members. We are also planning a trip to Detroit to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts and other museums this summer.
Many of our members are artists and enjoy painting, drawing, and pottery. There are so many arts programs in our community that our members have brought to my attention, and these will be future meetups. I like to get feedback from our members regularly about what type of activities they want to do, and we get a lot of requests for mindfulness & meditation, visual arts, and music.
KIM: I really like that idea.
KATIE: The possibilities are endless, and members are starting to plan their own meetups and inviting others from the group, which I encourage. It’s helping people build relationships.
KIM: So… April is a big autism “awareness” month, but for those of us who live with it everyday, autism is everyday, not just one month a year.
KATIE: After doing a community needs assessment, we identified the most pressing need (aside from opportunities for socialization to prevent isolation, which is the purpose of the meetups) are educating the community about autism.
KIM: What steps are you taking to educate the community?
KATIE: In addition to expanding the meetup groups geographically, I’m going to launch a program that brings people from the community together with autistic adults in a safe space, for a meal and discussion.
KIM: I think this a worthwhile program and I hope that people reading this, might be inspired to do the same thing in their communities. What would a program like this look like?
KATIE: Autistic participants can share what they want neurotypical participants to know, and neurotypicals can ask Autistic participants the questions they have been afraid to ask, or just don’t know who to ask. We will run it similarly to our meetup groups, where people are allowed to remain anonymous by writing on note cards before opening it up to discussion. We want everyone to feel comfortable and build bridges between the autistic and neurotypical communities.
KIM: That made me smile. I understand, that like myself and so many people, you are a blogger. What do you write about?
KATIE: My blog is about traveling the world as a nomadic autistic adult.
KIM: I forgot to ask you before – can you explain what inspired you to be a travel coach?
KATIE: Yes! So, when I was younger, I didn’t like interacting with the world at all. I didn’t even like to leave the house. If it were up to me, I would have lived as a “hermit,” writing and playing music all day, and reading books. Although I still enjoy that type of lifestyle at least half of the time, I also enjoy exploring the world, learning new cultures and ideas, and meeting new people.
But I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t tried it.
I can attribute the majority of my confidence, independence, and open-minded worldview to travel. It changed my life in profoundly positive ways, and I want other autistic adults to know that it can do that for them, as well.
KIM: Just the idea of travel can be scary for some people. Change in familiar surroundings and new routines…
KATIE: Of course, I was scared the first few times I traveled out of the country, and I still get really anxious before any trip. But what I’ve learned is that I don’t have to travel like a neurotypical. I can travel the way I want to travel. The biggest mistake I think people make is this idea that I have to see everything because I may never be back here again!
Well, guess what? You don’t have to see everything. And if you try to, you are going to burn yourself out and feel exhausted, and you won’t have very good memories of your trip.
When I travel, I have a few things I really want to see and some other ideas in case I feel like doing more. I often travel for several weeks or even months at a time, and it’s not uncommon for me to stay in for three consecutive days to avoid burnout. I’m experiencing my life and it’s wonderful. I go exploring in nature, in museums, trying new types of food, seeing new musicians and artists, and I have a really great time.
KIM: I love to visit trees native to the area and nature when I travel and visit artworks in museums. For me, I recharge my internal battery, so to speak, when I am with nature and incorporating that into travel is essential to me. I look forward to reading your blog.
KATIE: I hope my travel blog inspires other autistic adults to start exploring more. If reading the articles is all the inspiration you need, that’s great! If not, I’m available for hire to help you plan & book your trip, identify and help you achieve your personal growth goals through travel, and advocate on your behalf with airlines, hotels, and other travel service providers. I offer a free 30-minute consultation to learn more about your needs and see if my services are a good fit for you.
KIM: I understand you are intending to have an autistic majority board of directors? Does one have to be local to your area to inquire about that?
KATIE: Not necessarily. I am open to hearing from autistic people around the world. I would particularly welcome those with experience in HR, communications, fundraising, or financial management. But these skill sets are not required. The only requirements are a passion for our mission, approximately 8-10 hours a month of your time, and the ability to either donate funds, fundraise from others, or both.
KIM: Keep an eye on this young woman! She is going places (errr… pun intended.) I fully support your agency, Katie Oswald, and I thank you for doing this interview. You inspire me!
Can you tell everyone how to get in touch and where to read your writing?
KATIE: I can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For Full Spectrum Agency for Autistic Adults, we are working on a website. For now, you can find us on
Facebook and Twitter @FullSpectrumASD. My blog is here: Autistic Travel Coach.
You can find me on Facebook and Twitter at @ASDTravelCoach. You can schedule a free 30-minute consultation with me Here at 30 Minute Meeting. I welcome consultations for those interested in hiring me as a travel advocate and coach, are interested in starting their own meetup chapter, or need to hire a grants or evaluation consultant for their nonprofit.