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.