My Son’s Anchors


Image by Plbmak via Flickr

On the dining room table is a yellow bucket, containing five toys with mirrored surfaces. Along-side this bucket, are four time-devices (two alarm clocks, one wall clock, and a watch). Upstairs in my son’s bedroom he has a slinky, three handkerchiefs, a Thomas toy and a tissue box, all sitting on a pillow (which he never uses for his head). These are his anchors for their respective rooms.

No one else is allowed to touch or move his anchors, at risk of a meltdown. I use the word “meltdown”, not “tantrum”, because once he gets into his meltdown, he becomes completely irrational and almost impossible to bring back to rationality. If I don’t fix the anchor quickly (and sometimes even if I do), then everyone pays the price. Nothing will make him happy (he will say “yes” then “no” then “yes” over and over to anything and everything offered to him), he will end up screaming and shaking, breathless and utterly inconsolable. It can take an hour, if not longer, to get him to some semblance of calmness. His meltdowns used to include violence to people and property; I used to get regularly bitten, and hit. He would turn tables upside down, and throw objects with raged force.

My son creates anchors in frequently visited places too. For example, at his great grandmother’s house he collects together her watch, her late husband’s watch, her wall clock and her standing clock, and places them all on the table. Once he’s completed this ritual he might stand and look at them for a while, but there’s also a good chance he’ll then be in a state of mind where he will have some lunch and sing and play elsewhere in the house or garden. As long as people stay away from his anchor, that is.

Lining up cars used to be his primary anchor – both at home and away from home. As long as he was free to line up cars, and then no one touched his line-up, he would feel comfortable enough to potentially interact with people, and toys besides those specific cars. His anchor doesn’t always have to be in his line of sight, but he will regularly check on it (and will notice even the slightest tampering). I got into the habit of always carrying around three cars with us, so he could create an anchor for himself. Without an anchor, high anxiety levels (and what followed from that anxiety) was almost guaranteed.

I’d warn other people to please not touch his anchors. At an extended-family event one day, a not-so-nice family member decided it would amuse him to see what would happen if he shifted a line-up of cars my son had constructed (my son had gone to play elsewhere in the room). He moved one car, and my son noticed straight away and the meltdown started. I worked extra hard to avoid it getting out of hand, but his anxiety levels remained high for the rest of that visit. I spent the rest of that time dealing with the consequences of the broken anchor. I didn’t know whether to cry or scream at that family member – I’d warned them all, and what he had done was like torturing a special needs child in my book. I neither cried nor screamed, but I did lose a lot of respect for that person.

I named these things “anchors” for what might be obvious reasons by now. They’re his constant – if you move them, you can essentially set him adrift into a sea of anxiety. Once he’d placed an anchor, it needed to stay there until he was ready to move on (such as to go home). He doesn’t need to constantly mind the anchor, just knowing it’s there is enough. I see it as giving him a feeling of permanence and predictability in a constantly changing and confusing world. He struggles to understand social cues and rules, and to do what is expected of him, but at least his anchor holds steady.

Keeping an eye out for his anchors – which change over time and in different places – affects my life as his mum of course. I have to be careful when I clean a room, that I replace his anchors carefully. I have to watch out for any changes in anchors too, so I don’t move the wrong things. At the same time I can’t let the entire household be ruled by his anchors; there comes a point when we’ve all had enough of a particular anchor (maybe we need our watches back, or his brother desperately wants to play with that mirrored toy), so I have to carefully negotiate a partial release of an anchored item. At least now that his language is developing, I can perform that negotiation. I can forewarn him of what’s about to happen, and if need be, reassure him that it will be returned to him later. When his communication skills were drastically more limited than they are now, such negotiation was quite simply impossible.

If my son’s anxiety levels are already high, it is never time to disrupt an anchor. If he is relaxed, smiling, and in a highly interactive mood, there is a chance I could completely dismantle an anchor and maybe not have to ever let that one be created again. However (isn’t there always a “however”?) he will simply move on to create yet another anchor with something else, and I might not recognise it for what it is, and again risk unintentionally disrupting it. “Better the devil you know”.

I do hope that someday he won’t require anchors anymore – he’ll be able to enter new situations, or be at home, and not have to make sure of the permanence of some “random” object or objects. If that doesn’t happen, I will end up having to shift his anchor to something small, moveable and unobtrusive, that he could carry with him to perform the same function – if that’s possible. At this point though, knowing he has these anchors, and knowing how to deal with them, is like a sanity survival-mechanism for me too. It helps me to navigate his very-different world.

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6 Responses to My Son’s Anchors

  1. Jack (Wife of Jack) says:

    Your blog is so interesting to read for our newly diagnosed family. These anchors, may I ask can they be rearranged or cleaned etc overnight? Ours son seems to use endless piles of emphemera, plastic bags, cardboard, odd bits and pieces, newspaper etc as his “anchor” lately. He likes stuffing it all into containers or just making piles of it and constantly rearranging it. It gets really out of hand some days and his anxiety level increase to high levels when he can’t get his little collections just right. He stresses about it and if a parent gets sick of the squealing and chucks it all in the bin…. a big tantrum. However once he goes to bed we can tidy up, sort out and throw out as much as we need as he seems to start afresh the next morning.

    • I can’t rearrange his anchors, in fact back when he was really bad (when his autism was much more severe than it is now) I wasn’t even “allowed” to step over his car line-up, let alone touch it! He has no problem with them being cleaned though (though best not be done in front of him, it’s the sort of thing I’d do when he was sleeping or not home).

      It’s very interesting to hear about your son’s behaviour. It reminds me of something I read the other day about autistic children hoarding the sort of stuff the tends to get thrown-out. You might find this rings a bell with you:

      Our son also gets all worked up and anxious if he can’t get things to behave themselves – lately it’s a daily problem with his two clock-books (books with interactive clocks to teach telling the time). They have hands he can turn but they don’t sit exactly on the numbers correctly, and he gets all worked up and progressively upset trying to make them do it how he wants them to. We do much the same as you – take the item away before he gets himself anymore worked up. We let him have it back after a certain amount of time has elapsed (usually ten or so minutes – he watches the time count down on his Time Timer), by which stage he’s usually calmed down or forgotten about it. If he hasn’t calmed down or moved on from the frustration, we take it away again for longer (we have taken things away for 60 minutes before, by which stage he had forgotten about it).

      • Jack (Wife of Jack) says:

        The local newspaper is the latest thing. We can’t actually read it the evening it arrives. Our son has to have it folded up nicely exactly as it arrives. He get’s very distressed if it becomes unfolded and motions to us it needs refolding again. So when he goes to bed, relaxation time and the paper can be read and crumpled up as he has forgotten about it in the morning. It’s an extension of his little obsession with rubbish and recycling. It’s all a big paper merry go round in our house. Luckily we can tidy up at night and not cause him too much distress. He claims ownership of mail as it comes through the door and dislikes us opening it unless he gets the envelope as a sort of pay back for the upset.

    • That sounds both annoying and cute (though I’m guessing for you it’s more annoying than cute).

  2. nostromo says:

    My son gets anxious but never has what I’d call melt downs, I’ve been trying to figure out if melt downs are more of an Aspie thing, i.e. more in the domain of a high functioning person than a more Autistic person. Or maybe its just your son has a high motiviation level and my son just goes (in his head) “meh” a lot?
    Or maybe its just a personality thing. Thats the problem with ASDs who would know!!!

    • Hi nostromo. Interesting thought, but I don’t think so – it doesn’t match what I’ve seen in my son and other autistic children (in terms of a pattern between meltdowns and level of functioning).

      It’s more likely to do with those other sorts of things you mention, specifically individual temperament, levels of anxiety in general (some will have a diagnosed anxiety problem above and beyond the autism), and sensory issues (some of which can be quite severe).

      We’ve suspected that our son has major anxiety issues, which we asked his pediatrician to look into a while ago, and see whether medication would help. She decided at the time that the anxiety came under the head of the autism diagnosis (at this stage) and said she wouldn’t medicate a child for it under the age of six, so we just have to use lots of coping strategies. We do our best but it’s still very hard going on a daily basis, dealing with the anxiety aspect of his autism.

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