Sara-Louise Ackrill, 42, is the founder of Wired Differently, a social impact company making products and services for neurodivergent people. She was diagnosed as autistic as an adult and has, throughout her life, had a love for travel and at the same time has experienced the difficulties and painful moments that travelling as a neurodivergent person entails. We interviewed Sara-Louise in February 2021, for the All Inclusive Podcast.
Sara, can you tell me a bit about yourself and your many current projects?
Well, I’m very involved in the world of neurodiversity, I’m diagnosed as being autistic, and everything I do is connected to neurodiversity. My company (Wired Differently) is developing an emotional support app and work orientated clothing range with accessories and also a specialist virtual assistant service for neurodivergent leaders. Alongside that I’m director of Kimel Foundation which is in Berkshire, and that gets 16 to 24 year old young people into employment who are also neurodivergent, Alongside that I’m a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Inclusive Entrepreneurship chaired by Dr Lisa Cameron MP, which was set up this year and that’s a really really exciting venture.
It was lovely meeting you online – we haven’t met in person yet – in September when you were in Italy.
Yeah, for sure, I’m counting on both hands the amount of people I’ve met in the last six months, that I have not actually met. And then you realize that one day I’m going to realize my entire world is online, like a lot of people.
Let’s talk about you as a traveler, because this is why I wanted to invite you, because I know you travel a lot and you’ve traveled for work, you travel for holidays. How would you describe yourself? What is your travel style?
Well, I’ve obviously thought about these questions in advance, and that’s good, or you would have had the full autistic brain dump, but I think I’m a loner when I travel. But the irony is, I actually travel to places where I really adore the people. It’s very much the people that make a place for me. But because of how I am, being autistic, I like to control my environment. I like to have free reign on how I manage my time.
I’m not great with changes of plan, I don’t want to be annoying for someone else who is very spontaneous and you know, getting away from the day job and going on holiday and they absolutely want to feel free and able to take up opportunities here and there. I don’t want to hold anyone back, but I am pretty adventurous. I’ve repelled backwards down waterfalls in Chile and I’ve trekked in the Thai jungle like everyone who’s backpacked in Thailand. But I’m not a sporty person, I’m not outdoorsy. I had difficulty for example, in Australia. I’m very British and bookish and probably a little bit old school, and I found that culture quite sort of outdoorsy and it didn’t really fit me personally. Although I did like Sydney, but no, I think to describe myself as a traveler, I would say I’m a loner. But I love people and I kind of love people watching and I’ve enjoyed that very much in my favorite places.
I mean, I’m a huge fan of France. I lived there for 10 years, but I’m a huge fan of Beirut. That’s one of my absolute favorite destinations. Lebanese culture and people. I love Greece, I love Italy. And continuing in that theme of sort of Eastern Med areas, I’d love to go to Turkey and I think the reasons I like destinations I liked in Asia, for example, I loved China, I loved Malaysia. I wasn’t actually that keen on Thailand when I first went, but I did read some books that said you might find that you love it when you leave. And I did, I really love it. Kind of retrospectively, so I’d like to go back. Um, I love anything to do with Indian culture, Afghani, Pakistani, Bangladeshi culture, Sri Lanka I really loved but I think that the common theme was the people. It’s absolutely people that make it for me.
But basically you’re describing a series of destinations that are awfully full of unexpected things that can happen all the time? I mean, I’m thinking Italy, first of all, it’s the country of accidents, delays, you know. I’m Italian, so always supercritical, but it’s really a country where I think planning is sometimes a bit difficult.
Yeah, it’s interesting. I used to be PA to the Senior Area Director of Sales at Hilton Worldwide, so we had hotels in North Africa and Indian Ocean and I remember when he interviewed me, and we ran into a fourth interview and I said “look, why have you called me back here? Do I have this job or not?” And he kinda said “there is something that really bothers me about you” he said, there is some surreal things that don’t tie up here. There’s some inconsistencies. You tell me you like routine and you like consistency, but on the other hand you go to some very un-reassuring places. And I mentioned some of the places I backpacked in and it’s funny, I think when you’re autistic you can actually cope with some quite unusual sets of circumstances, and you do tend to be quite patient because everyday stuff is a bit of a pain.
But I think I can control my environment in the sense that I know when we spoke in the summer I was saying to you, I love backpacking. I think it just fits with my value system and it’s true, it doesn’t technically fit with being autistic, but I can give you some examples of really silly things actually that make my life great when I’m traveling and one of them is going to a hostel – and fortunately, this has become quite common – where you get curtains around your bed.
Now, I’m capable of going and staying in a war zone as long as my bunk bed has curtains around it and I have, you know, a charger for my phone which gives me constant “feedback” and I have my favorite books on my Kindle and it’s strange you sort of seek familiarity, but at the same time you can be relatively daring. I mean, I’ve been to destinations which are considered, you know luxurious and or relaxing. I was very lucky to go to the Maldives because I had a partner at the time who was working there and I was able to stay with him and it was great to tick it off, but it just wasn’t for me. I did like the people, although you know, you’re not all only dealing with Maldivian people in the Maldives. Obviously it’s a bit of a melting pot, which is nice, but doesn’t necessarily hint at the culture. I actually learned an awful lot more about the Maldives reading some excellent books on the place rather than actually when I was there. But then when we hopped over to Sri Lanka for the weekend, I was just in my element ’cause that for me was real traveling. It just seemed more real, it is more real, you know.
“I’m capable of going and staying in a war zone as long as my bunk bed has curtains around it and I have a charger for my phone”
So yeah, it is funny. I’m aware that I don’t choose, you know, Majorca or whatever. And not from any point of view other than… I just like things to be a bit more convivial, I think. And I definitively like to to get under the skin of a culture and I think, also I’m a real armchair traveler as well. I read, I’m a big fan of this thing called the Shelter Box Book Club and I’m not sure if they ship internationally, but I get a book every month which forces me to read fiction, and they’re always set in, or generally set in, developing countries, and generally a writer that might not be super well known in the UK. So I just read a fantastic book by a Lebanese writer and that was recommended through the book club. I’m a real armchair traveler at the moment, because obviously we’re in our third lock down in the UK. We can’t go anywhere and I do lots and lots of reading. Yeah, that’s a big passion, but generally there’s a travel element to what I read.
What are your on line sources for planning a trip? Do you have like favorite websites or newsletters that you subscribe to?
I don’t think I have a system, particularly if someone was to say to me now: Lockdown’s over you know. Here’s 1 grand go and spend it on a trip. What would I do? I would look for the quirky youth hostels because, it’s funny actually, I call them youth hostels, I’m 42, they’re not youth hostels they are hostels, but I guess you differentiate between different types of hostel. They are tourism hostels I guess. And yeah, I would look at individual quirky hostels and book direct. I think having been in hospitality I try to book direct when I can, just so that I avoid those crazy fees. But then you can’t hate those websites either, because you know a lot of small businesses are getting huge exposure using a lastminute.com or whatever, so. But I don’t have a particular way. I would just tend to book direct. Yes, obviously websites and everything are helpful because in the old days I suppose you would use Lonely Planet and I love those.
So if you had a grand, where would you go now? Which country, which destination?
Your home country is one of my favourites and I was lucky enough to spend 2 weeks in Sicily on a research project last year, and I did get to go away with friends who treated me to a week at a villa on the Lake Garda, which was an amazing experience. Beautiful, I don’t make a habit of hanging out in villas on Lake Garda. I felt very, very lucky.
I definitely miss Italy because everyone says yeah, of course you’re on a research project, with all the photos of your food, but my God, my lunch every day was just the highlight, it was just incredible, and walking in that beautiful sun and Sicily is just stunning. I just loved it. Yeah, I think I’d love to go back to Beirut. Obviously that is very, very difficult right now, and it was actually, it was difficult when I went at the time actually, but that was an interesting lesson, because having lived 10 years in France, I consulted the French embassy or consulate and I consulted the British one, and one was saying absolutely don’t go whatever color your passport is, and the other one was saying, you know, pretty much please go, it’s a fantastic tourist destination and when I got there, the Lebanese people were saying, will you please tell your friends? It’s amazing here and, you know, we’re a bit of a victim of the world media, so it did give me a sort of other view. You know, ’cause I am a bit gullible actually, and as long as I’m reading in “inverted commas” the “right newspapers” I do tend to believe what I read, which might not be very healthy. And it’s true, you are told not to go to certain destinations and you have to ask yourself why sometimes.
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What’s your favorite means of transport? Are you the kind of person that loves doing a 12 hour flight because you sleep or watch 25 movies? Or are you more of a train lover? What’s your favorite way to to move around?
Well, I love the coach and I think my friends would tease me for that because I don’t know, but in England, that’s seen as a bit of an older persons way of traveling, but that’s why I like it, because you meet nice older people! You don’t get any trouble on a coach. You tend to get a driver with a nice sense of humor and I love that experience. And I don’t like getting somewhere too quickly, so I’ve often taken the coach, especially in the old days. I used to take the coach from Exeter in Southwest UK, down to Dijon very regularly and that would take, I don’t even know how many hours, maybe 18 or something. And that was beautiful because you’d wake up in France with, you know, all the beautiful landscape and you had that sort of foreign exchange feel that you had on school trips, and then you’d have to get the ferry. Obviously then we got Eurotunnel, but yeah, actually probably I might be the only guest you get that says they like the coach best, oh and trains in China.
I think the other reason is with coaches you tend to go city center to city center, so it’s just a lot more practical. Yeah, it’s very practical and it’s quite nice arriving in the middle of things because for example, Paris, the airport is a 45 minute drive from the city and you don’t see the best parts of France on the way to Paris, so it kind of puts a little dampner on things before you arrive. Whereas if you take a Eurostar or a coach and you get right into the heart of Paris or wherever, when you arrive, it’s just a little bit more magical, I think, arriving in the city centre.
Do you use apps for travel, any mobile apps, in particular when you’re traveling?
I don’t because… this would sound like a plug if my app was made, but it’s a while off being made, so I’ll indulge. The reason I’m creating an app (and I have a really exciting high profile investor who I can’t name, but who’s sufficiently exciting to attract further investment!). The reason I’m making that, in all honesty, is I have struggled for decades with travel. It’s a big passion. I want autistic people and other neurodivergent people to benefit and the particular type of support that I envisage, and have given as a therapist and see works, doesn’t exist at the moment. So my idea, – and actually when I was packing for Sicily, the reason I was going to Sicily was to be a Resident Befriender in a hostel. And as I was packing, I thought to myself “this whole thing needs to be an app” because I just reached for my pocket and I just had that instinct go to my phone because that’s what you do now, isn’t it? You go to your phone for everything, even stuff you don’t wanna get your phone for, like your banking or whatever. You still go to your phone. So I just reached in my pocket and thought, “oh God, I wish there was an app for this”, so I wish I could just have that support now as I’m about to take a trip and I’m just feeling myself dissociate from my body, and get very weirded out and about to go to an airport, which I know will freak me out and possibly make me ill and all that sort of thing. So the short answer is that personally, that app that I need doesn’t exist yet, which is why I’m creating one.
What is a Resident Befriender?
They don’t exist and this is why I was doing it. So in all my times traveling I thought to myself it would be amazing if there was someone here who got this and I could go and talk to them, before I go on this really scary day trip, or before I meet new people or whatever traveling means at that time, and there was never anyone that I could just go to. I found traveling very full-on, when I think about backpacking after University, for example; I found it very fake. It didn’t suit me at all. I love backpacking as an adult, but as a young person I found it very superficial and it was very much : “who are you? Where do you come from, where you going next?” It was the same three questions and actually my partner when I was in Chile said to me, “God, backpackers only ask three questions. “Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going?” And then they walk away and the conversation’s over and there’s a really good book called “Are You Experienced?” I don’t know if you’ve read that, it’s a parody of backpacking culture, and I read it and thought, “Oh my God, someone understands, this is wonderful”. But I wanted more depth and I also think well, when you’re backpacking, it’s also a time where actually people are often trying to get away from something and they are drawn towards something. There is a real carrot and stick element. People always talk about what’s drawing them. They never talk about what’s pushed them away from wherever they come from, apart from just normal curiosity. I’m also aware from training and parts of my therapy life that with British girls, there’s a big problem in places like Greece and in areas of the Mediterranean with drinking and you know sexual assault and crimes. And I was once trained by someone who’d spent time with the Greek police, specifically supporting English girls who were having problems.
“So I tend to see the outcast, the outsiders and the weirdos. I guess when I go traveling, I see all the people struggling or suffering, because of my background, because I’m a therapist and because I’m autistic, I see myself I suppose as a bit of an outsider and I suppose I pick up on other outsiders.”
So I tend to see the outcast, the outsiders and the weirdos. I guess when I go traveling, I see all the people struggling or suffering, because of my background, because I’m a therapist and because I’m autistic I see myself I suppose as a bit of an outsider and I suppose I pick up on other outsiders and I realize that when people are traveling, there’s lots of, you know, what did you do today? What did you try? What was the biggest thing you did? What was the greatest thing you did? But no one talks about the other stuff, and I have a real passion for that, and I just wanted to go to a hostel and be there for people and just see what happened. And it was just a really interesting process.
One of my dreams, I think, for retirement, is to run a backpackers hostel where I can be like this big, this big Mama that everyone comes to and talks about all the dark stuff and then they go off and do all the fun backpacking stuff. I think that’s my retirement plan.
I think I see myself as the backpacking therapist, but I spent half my time in Sicily and researching that and the other half actually asking myself what would happen if this was an app, because an app can reach millions of people who are neurodivergent and backpacking or traveling. And actually there are a couple of blogs written by autistic people who do backpack and they do it very successfully, but in my research so far, what I’ve discovered is that autistic people tend to travel when they have to or to not travel at all, apart from local travel, and there are some great apps for that too.
But my idea has always been to support people who want to go on, say, business trips or personal travel holidays with family, which is very very tricky. I said to you, I travel as a loner, but if I had been a mum and I’ve never gone down that path, but there are many autistic moms. And many autistic dads. And I don’t know how they cope with the changing environment. The lack of feeling of physical safety in your own body, which you get when you travel and you leave your familiarity. Managing children, managing the fact that they are also finding change difficult, and tiredness, and all the things you get when you travel anyway. Managing a relationship. I just don’t know how people do it and I really want to be a kind of pressure valve for people because actually, after holidays,you know, divorce rates go through the roof just like after Christmas.
Want to listen to the full interview? You can find the podcast on all your favourite platforms, and a subtitled version on our YouTube channel.
Want to know more about Sara-Louise’s company? Visit the Wired Differently website.