Dylan and I usually go away twice a year, at Easter and during the Summer. For the first time ever, we didn’t have a holiday at Easter this year. I wasn’t sure whether Dylan would notice but he was clearly disappointed. Although time is not an easy concept for Dylan he makes associations with key events through the year and keeps track of it. So when I gave Dylan his Easter Egg he looked at me and said ‘cot’ quizzically. He was, I realised, asking me when we would be setting off to a holiday cottage. ‘Not this year, Dylan’ I said. ‘Boat?’ he asked, hopefully.
I hadn’t booked a cottage (or boat) for Easter because I thought my marking might fall awkwardly this year and that I would have to work through the break. In the event the students have only just submitted their assignments so I could have taken Dylan away after all. Perhaps next year I will. Meantime, I am experimenting with regular overnight trips instead; the money that we would have spent on a week’s holiday I am planning to use across the year. This should mean that I can take Dylan on a short break every six to eight weeks. I will be curious to see whether ‘little and often’ is better for Dylan than less frequent longer breaks.
So last weekend Dylan and I went to Durham, a place he loves and which he has recently been ‘asking’ to visit again (‘asking’ involves Dylan collecting leaflets of things he is interested in and stacking these up in piles in his bedroom like ‘vouchers’). Conscious that the last time Dylan and I went on an overnight trip (visiting Brighton for his birthday) I vowed never again to stay in a Premier Inn, I decided this trip would be a good opportunity to try and extend Dylan’s repertoire.
I knew that moving Dylan from the Moon wouldn’t be easy. Dylan has been fixated on ‘Moon Hotels’ for years and staying in Premier Inns has been part of the raison d’être of our trips. Dylan adores the moon logo and enjoys the familiarity of the purple branding and predictability of facilities and services. The buffet breakfast (as much as he can eat of things he loves) is probably also part of Dylan’s love affair with Premier Inns 🙂 I figured that if we were going to stay somewhere different I needed to ensure it offered something the Premier Inn couldn’t; I wanted a hotel with compensating attractions. So I browsed the other hotel options with Dylan’s favourite places and activities in mind and opted for a hotel on the bank of the river which Dylan likes to walk, with a view of his beloved Cathedral. I also had an Ace in my pocket: the hotel had a swimming pool.
Staff at Dylan’s care home suggested that I show Dylan the hotel website and include a photo of it on his programme. This seemed to go well. The pool, in particular, captured Dylan’s attention and was the thing he talked about on the run-up to the trip; when he pointed to the photo of the hotel on his programme, the words he said were ‘pool’ and ‘swim’ rather than ‘bed’ and ‘moon’. So I set off for Durham optimistically, fairly confident we had prepared Dylan for the change of routine.
On arrival it was clear that Dylan had understood we would not be staying at the Premier Inn; he didn’t protest at all when I made a right rather than a left turn on the walk from the railway station. I had put a note on the hotel booking to say I would be supporting my autistic son and if we could be allocated a twin room with a decent amount of space between the beds that would be appreciated. I had also said that if there was any way we could have a room with a river view that would be fantastic, but that space was the priority.
In my experience such requests are frequently ignored; I have often had to return to reception to ask for an alternative room. As for adding a note about dietary requirements (I am vegan) I have wondered why I bother. So I was amazed, on arrival at the hotel, to find that we had been upgraded to a family room (lots of space) overlooking the River Wear and that there was a jug of soya milk in the room. Dylan seemed to enjoy the space and the view from the window!
Food is very important to Dylan and, happily, dinner and breakfast met with his approval. Best of all, however, was the pool. I hadn’t scheduled it on Dylan’s programme as I needed to check it was safe and that I could supervise alone. This is important because Dylan is a non-swimmer with high risk behaviour around water: in the past, he has leapt into water fully clothed, waded out of his depth and plunged underwater, attempting to stay below. Fortunately, the hotel pool turned out to be ideal (it did occur to me that had I found otherwise it would have been very difficult to say no): fairly small, not deep and quiet. We spent a lovely hour in the water before breakfast on Sunday morning, an excellent way to start the day.
I had assumed that staying at a different hotel would be challenging for Dylan and that it would be important to maintain his other routines while we were in Durham. However, breaking the Moon habit seemed to loosen Dylan’s patterns more generally. So instead of having lunch in our usual café on Saturday we tried a different place. I was thrilled; the vegan options were much better and Dylan caught the spirit of adventure and had a Panini. I am guessing this was a positive experience because he accepted a different café again the next day.
Dylan was also open to taking different routes around Durham, changing the order in which we did some of his favourite things and trying new activities. So on this trip we walked further down the river path than we had previously and discovered Old Durham Gardens. Further on, we happened on a pub – this was just what we needed after a long walk on a sunny Saturday. Dylan enjoyed it so much I suspect future trips to Durham might involve a walk to the Rose Tree 🙂 Then, on the rainy Sunday, we looked around exhibitions at the Cathedral and Palace Green Library, something we hadn’t done previously. Again, this was a great success with Dylan’s interest captured by the acoustics of the Great Kitchen and a collection of skulls and bones.
I will be interested to see if Dylan builds some of these places into a revised repertoire next time we are in Durham. Another visit might not involve the same hotel – although we got a good deal on the booking it was more expensive than usual and I don’t want Dylan to grow too accustomed to such facilities 🙂 However, I now have the confidence to try something different again if need be.
What have I learned from this experience? That Dylan’s ‘routines’ are partly maintained and constructed by me. Once he has enjoyed something, I tend to let him repeat the experience as it gives him pleasure. This becomes a pattern that is familiar and dependable and which Dylan starts to recognise. However, he is dependent on me breaking these patterns as well as creating them and I should perhaps be more proactive in suggesting changes to routines. The memory of Dylan smiling and laughing on the train home should help me not to forget this 🙂