Walking Without A Map: route and routine in autism

map 011Dylan and I are in the habit of going for a ‘big walk’ on Christmas Day. We usually take a picnic lunch and head somewhere familiar; here we are by Agden reservoir in 2010 and on Back Tor in 2011. On Christmas morning this year I was setting out things for our backpacks, wondering where we might walk, when I noticed Dylan had removed the map from the pile. I retrieved it, only for him to remove it again. Dylan and I don’t usually walk with a map as we know the Peak District National Park, which we live close to, pretty well. The Peak District is divided into two Peaks, the white and the dark, and we have OS maps for both. While I sometimes check one of the maps when we return from a walk, I’m not in the habit of taking them with us as we usually know exactly where we are going. So why did I want to take a map this Christmas?

Routine and Landscape

Recently I’ve been looking to extend our repertoire of walks. Although Dylan and I have in our heads walks of all lengths and levels (and for all moods, weathers and occasions) Dylan also has expectations about these walks in terms of routines which must be followed.  This might mean pausing at a particular bridge, walking around a specific tree, or always taking a left fork. Although Dylan’s commitment to ritual is comforting in its familiarity and mostly I enjoy it, there are times when the rigidity is limiting.

There is a walk up a local valley, for example, where Dylan insists we return by the  road instead of through the woods because the first time we ever walked that way that is what we did. In a certain valley in the Peak Park we must always take the ‘high track’, so aren’t able to explore some stones which I know would be of interest to Dylan but which lie below the track we have to follow. On other walks we aren’t able to join up the countryside in a creative way, moving from one route to another, because that isn’t allowed. This fixation on route is something which Dylan has demonstrated for years; even as a toddler he would cry if we drove home from the childminder’s the ‘wrong’ way.

I have been trying a few strategies to help Dylan accept some variety in his walks. One is to park the car at the ‘end’ of a route, or in the middle of it, in the hope that joining a walk at a different point will loosen Dylan’s commitment to a specific route. Another thing I’ve been trying is walking contrariwise around a familiar route so that the landscape looks slightly different. I have also been building in some brand new walks (which is where the maps come in). This has gone down reasonably well although Dylan is often cross, initially, and resistant. I am careful about what happens when we try out a new walk because of the possibility that it will become another fixed route. I’ve noticed that it is the second visit to a place which seems to be crucial; it is at this point that Dylan will establish a walk as a routine. Conscious that I don’t want to lay down more fixed routes, I try to subtly alter the walk on the second visit so that Dylan acquires multiple new routes.

Higger Tor, Christmas 2013

Higger Tor, Christmas 2013

On Christmas morning this year, when Dylan removed the map from my pile of things for the backpacks, he showed me that he understands perfectly well the function and purpose of a map.  He also showed me that he knows what the implications are for him: that we will be heading somewhere unfamiliar, where he will not be able to take his bearings from the landscape.

For Dylan this means that he can’t predict what is coming next. He can’t look forward to familiar landmarks and rituals. He has no idea whether it will include the opportunity to be by water or through trees (his favourite landscapes) or any ‘ups’ (his least favourite terrain). He doesn’t know whether there will be a pub mid-way or at the end of the walk (this is important to a young man who likes his pint of Blackcurrant and packet of crisps). Nor does he know how long the walk will take; whether or not we’re likely to pass other walkers; or if I’ll be relaxed enough to sing. My guess is that he realises there’ll be no singing:  I’ll be too busy checking the map and worrying about whether or not I’m going the right way (because I  don’t know what is ahead of us either so will feel vulnerable too).

Dylan’s instinct was right once again:  not a good formula for Christmas Day. I put the map away and we drove, instead, to the Longshaw Estate then hiked up to Burbage through the forest path by Burbage Brook then over Higger Tor, where we had our Christmas picnic, and Carl Wark before descending to walk in Padley Gorge. I don’t think this is one of Dylan’s all-time favourite routes (he’s not keen on the ‘up’ and the area attracts too many people), but it’s familiar to him and has the benefit of variety in the landscape.

The Visual World

But walking without a map can go wrong even in familiar landscape.  On Christmas Day in 2010, after our picnic by Agden reservoir, Dylan and I set off to hike up to a village with a pub which we like. At the top of a wood we rounded a bend to be met by a strangely unfamiliar landscape. Since we had last walked there, an entire plantation had been logged, transforming the countryside. With the covering of snow, I was completely disoriented, unable to get my bearings and at a loss as to where the footpath we usually took might be. I made several false starts across the bare hill, but aborted each time, lacking confidence in my judgement. I realised my only option was to ask Dylan to lead.

The logged plantation, a year later.

The logged plantation, a year later.

I occasionally do this if I lose track of where I am. Dylan almost always takes us confidently and without error to where we need to be; the only time this goes wrong is if he leads us, instead, to where he wants to be (a cake shop for example). But out on a Derbyshire hillside, on Christmas afternoon with the day on the turn, I knew that Dylan knew as well as I did that the only place to get to from where we were was the Old Horns.  Today, though, Dylan paused. When he did head off, on a left fork northward,  it was hesitantly. The land didn’t feel right beneath my boots. I alternated between hurrying (in the hope I would find something I recognised round the next bend) and dragging  (as if to turn back).

We were, indeed, walking the wrong way that day. Fortunately we met a family out walking who were able to re-direct us and, happily, we ended the afternoon with a pint in the pub. I told myself that some of the best days are lived without a map, but the experience made me realise that local knowledge is not infallible. More importantly I realised that Dylan’s usually excellent sense of direction isn’t wizardry or divined in the heavens like a mariner; it’s visual and based on the geological features and landmarks which he notices as we walk. Such features are generally dependable and predictable. They stay where they are and change only slowly. They don’t run away from you or give you the slip (like words can). Mostly anyway – barring Acts of God and lumberjacks.

The Healing Landscape

Dylan has responded to landscape since he was very young, not just in the sense of being aware of it, but by taking comfort in it. This is true of nature in general but familiar landscape, in particular, seems to be capable of healing him when he is anxious. The following poem (from my second collection, The Bat Detector) records an incident when Dylan was still quite young, perhaps two or three years old. At that point we hadn’t established fixed routes for walking or realised their potential significance. However, the poem illustrates me starting to learn these things.  In the poem I describe the healing which Dylan receives from a walk after a week of disruption at home.  At the end of the walk, however, my own sense of order is disturbed when we find our car has been broken into.  Through this petty theft, I am given a window into the way Dylan might have been feeling during that week.

Petty Theft

One of his inheritances:  the need for order,
his life bound by structure and routine.
So the week we dis- and re-assemble rooms
breaks his orientation to our world –
cries wrong way round in his bed all night,
screams the topsy-turvy days away until,
exhausted, we drag our hollow shells
into the familiar, constant hills.
We walk in no particular direction,
feeling the heal of our breathing
with the lift and fall of our boots
as he runs ahead to greet the known
trees (down to the ground, inside out)
with ritual circular dance until he is
rooted and soothed by the certain wood.

Breaking through bracken we make
for home but find ourselves adrift
at the wood’s edge – separated from
the small blue glint of car by acres
of Whortleberry. We strike out across
the heath, Dylan trilling and squealing
at the moths which fly up from deep
blue berries to flap around his head.
I bend among them, my face brushed
by the dusty wings of Lappet and Brindle,
to pinch the tips of leaves for fruits,
secrete them in my pocket.
As we approach the road, you crouch:
dig a clump of heather from the healing ground.


Later that week, sorting clothes for washing,
I will pluck my linen shorts from the basket
and find a Rorschach squash of Whortleberry:
the stain chromatographic, amethyst circles
closing to a livid heart. And I will remember
the day’s petty theft: how we sang along
the burning road to find a glittery mosaic
laced across our children’s seats, the baby’s milk –
glass crumbling like crushed ice around a jagging hole.

Christmas is also, of course, disruptive of our routines. You don’t need to be autistic to find this time of year difficult:  small children; unhappy couples; the recently-bereaved and the alone and lonely can all, in their different ways, find the lack of structure and routine challenging.  As another Christmas passes I am thankful, again, for nature’s gift to Dylan and for the routes through it he has learned without a map,  truly by heart.


Barrett, Elizabeth (2005) ‘Petty Theft’ in The Bat Detector, Wrecking Ball Press

For information about The Bat Detector see The Poems

5 thoughts on “Walking Without A Map: route and routine in autism

  1. “Dylan almost always takes us confidently and without error to where we need to be; the only time this goes wrong is if he leads us, instead, to where he wants to be (a cake shop for example).”

    Beautiful work and poem, Liz. Sometimes the stars align and where we want to be, and we we need to be, are one and the same. When the stars AND planets align, that place just happens to be a cake shop.

    Thank you for your writing and for your friendship. Happy new year to you and Dylan,


    • Happy New Year Christina! I’ve just been posting turkey wishes on your other blog 🙂 Yes, cake shops are surely an alignment in the heavens! You are a woman after Dylan’s heart, x


  2. Pingback: Autism and Landscape | Living with Autism

  3. Pingback: Early Intervention in Autism: The Senses and ‘Material Literacy’ | Living with Autism

  4. Pingback: Day 49: The Yellow Wood | Living with/out Autism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.