When I arrived to pick up Bud from school yesterday, his eyes were a bit red and puffy. Mrs. H explained that he'd been crying and that the dysregulation seemed to spiral up out of nowhere.
He'd been perseverating on one of the cards from his visual schedule, insisting on carrying it around with him. Since his visual schedule is such a critical tool for keeping his day structured (and, therefore, for keeping him regulated) it's important that Mrs. H maintain control of the cards and the board. So, she asked Bud to put the card back... and he lost it: "No, Mrs. H. That's MINE! Give it BACK!", tears, and full-body hurling that resulted in a bumped head and more wailing sobs.
In my experience, when Bud has extreme reactions like this, there is a reason. They don't typically come out of the blue.
"Which card was it?" I asked.
"It was the HOME card."
A-ha. Now we were getting somewhere. When Bud was in preschool, he used the HOME card as a regulating tool. He carried it around in his hand the way other children carry blankies. It was his own little reminder that "home" was coming - a well-earned pay-off at the end of the school day.
I explained the preschool context to Mrs. H and asked if he'd been feeling homesick or acting out of sorts.
"Not until I tried to take the card away," she said.
I could tell we were getting closer to solving the mystery, but I just couldn't see it yet. I looked at his schedule board, and the little two-inch-square pictures velcroed in a line.
"Is this a new picture or anything?" I asked, looking at the HOME card.
"Well, that wasn't the actual card he was carrying. He found a spare one on the shelf." She walked to the other side of the room and took it down to show me.
Same HOME picture.
On a THREE-inch, not two-inch square card.
Just like in preschool.
Like many people on the spectrum, Bud has a hard time generalizing from the specific. Two-inch cards belong in Kindergarten. Three-inch cards belong in preschool. He is the only person from preschool who is in Kindergarten. If a three-inch card has appeared at Kindergarten, it must be his. Not even wrong.
My hunch is that Bud recognized the HOME card as a touchstone - a regulator, a comfort-giver. We all have them. We bring our favorite music in the car when we know it's going to be a stressful day, we wear crosses or Stars of David or flaming chalices on chains around our necks, we carry pictures in our wallets of the people we hold most dear; they are the small reminders that we take with us when we leave the security of our homes. We cling to them tightly, so that whenever we need to we can remind ourselves that this moment, this place, this circumstance is not all there is.
So it's not so hard to put myself in Bud's shoes. Let's say I have a favorite picture of my family that I carry with me every day and that brings me great joy and comfort during difficult times. Then let's say that I go through a long stretch of good, untroubled times and I don't take the photo out much to look at it, and without even realizing it I lose it. Then ten months pass, and I find the photograph tucked in a dark crevice where I never expected to see it. I realize that I had forgotten all about the picture, but I experience a flood of warmth and comfort when I look at it, and I'm delighted to find it again. Just then, someone scoops it up with a stack of papers and heads for the shredder.
I have a hunch that Bud experienced that sort of panicked feeling when Mrs. H took the HOME card away.
As soon as I gave her the context, she brought the card over to Bud and suggested that he take it with him. She told him he could keep it and he didn't have to bring it back to school. He could not have been more delighted.
He carried the card with him all evening, then fell asleep with HOME curled up in his fist. And, it's no surprise: in the morning, he very happily let go of his touchstone and left HOME and home to head off for another great day at school.