This week was Sawyer’s first week of 5th grade. He had an amazing week, and he absolutely loves his teachers. He has a lot of his friends in his homeroom class, too, so he’s been really happy with 5th grade so far- YAY!
One really cool thing they did this week was fill out an “about me” (sort of like the form I offer here) sheet for their teacher. I love things like that; it gives the teacher an inside look into the mind of that child, and lets them get to know the child a little better. When I got to the end of Sawyer’s form, it asked “Is there anything else I should know about you?” and Sawyer answered “Yes. I am very afraid of dogs”. It may seem like a weird thing to include on a school form, but there have been times when people brought dogs into the school and Sawyer has freaked out, so I’m glad he put that on there; his teacher needs to realize that if someone brings a dog to school, Sawyer needs to be kept away from it.
A lot of people with autism end up developing irrational fears of things. Because a lot of people on the spectrum have senses that are a lot more heightened than others, some things we experience that may be a little jolting for us may be downright traumatizing for them.
Sawyer actually has cynophobia, or an overwhelming fear of dogs. He doesn’t like going to functions where he knows dogs will be present, and if we see a dog in public, it’s enough to send Sawyer into a full-on panic attack, where he cries, screams, breaks out into a sweat, and will cling to me or another trusted caregiver; I have literally watched him climb his sisters like a tree in an attempt to get away from a dog. To people watching from a distance, it may look pretty comical and they may laugh, but Sawyer’s fear is no laughing matter in our household.
Sawyer gets crippling anxiety at just the mention of a dog. The sound of a dog barking blocks away is enough to send Sawyer into a panic, and once he actually threatened to run away because I mentioned wanting to own a small dog someday. When I said I’d like to have a little dog, like a Yorkie, Sawyer looked at me and said calmly “If you get a dog, I will run away and you’ll never see me again” (and yes, he absolutely means that). Sawyer hates dogs and does everything he can to avoid them. At family functions where dogs are present, he locks himself in a bedroom and plays with a tablet to stay calm and entertain himself until we go home. In public, he will literally go out of his way to avoid being near dogs. At the Special Olympics this past April, there were some volunteers walking a service dog. Even though the dog was calm and gentle, Sawyer began crying and panicking:
Sawyer is so terrified of dogs that he avoids going outside to play. He used to like going to the park, but now he’s afraid because the last time he went someone had a dog there that wasn’t on a leash. He has an awesome bike that he’s only ridden twice because “there could be dogs out there”; he’s heard dogs barking when he was trying to ride it, and now he doesn’t want to ride it anymore.
Sawyer’s fear of dogs stem from a few different instances. When he was really little, a chihuahua bit him. It was only a little nip, but of course it terrified him. One year at a family BBQ, our cousin brought his new puppy. The puppy was small and adorable, but when my cousin let him out of his kennel to use the bathroom, he saw kids and got excited to play; the puppy chased Sawyer around the yard. Sawyer was terrified of getting bit again, and ran so fast one of my cousins joked that his feet didn’t touch the ground! Despite all of us trying to reassure Sawyer that the puppy only wanted to play, it took a while to calm him down, and he ended up spending the rest of the afternoon inside playing video games on a tablet. Then, a couple of years ago our neighbor’s pit mix got out one day when the kids were getting off the school bus. Sawyer screamed when he saw the dog running at him, and took off running for our front door. The dog chased him, and then jumped on him and knocked him to the ground. The dog was trying to play, but in Sawyer’s eyes, all he could see was this huge dog with her mouth and teeth coming at him, and feel paws (and nails) on him, scratching him. Caitlyn rescued him quickly, but the damage was done; Sawyer was officially done with dogs from that point on. I can only imagine how scary those instances were for Sawyer. As it is, being chased or jumped on by a dog is scary for some kids (and even adults), but since Sawyer’s senses are so heightened, I imagine that for him all dogs look like Cujo (and that is definitely one movie I will never let Sawyer see!).
I understand Sawyer’s fear of dogs because I have an irrational fear of snakes. I’ve never been bitten by one, but the mere sight of a snake sends me into a panic, and I’ve often had nightmares about snakes. As I’ve gotten older, I have gotten a little better about my fear but I still hate them. I can look at them through the glass at zoos or pet stores, but if I see one outside? I would probably hurt myself trying to get away from it, no matter how small or what breed it is.
We have done everything we can think of to try to make Sawyer realize that not all dogs want to bite or attack. We have family members with dogs and we’ve tried to show him that their dogs are sweet and loving and just want to play. I often pet dogs and play with them in front of him to show him that most dogs are not a threat, and I have even shown Sawyer movies and YouTube clips featuring cute dogs and puppies, but it hasn’t worked. Even though the dogs Sawyer is around these days have never attacked anyone or bit anyone, his experiences from the past have scarred him so badly that he assumes all dogs want to hurt him. A lot of autistic people are highly logical, but reasoning with Sawyer does not work, because his fear of dogs is an irrational one. As he’s gotten older, Sawyer has gotten a little better about being in the same area as a dog- as long as it’s pretty far away from him. I make it a point to talk to him before we go to events where dogs may be present, and tell him “You might see a dog, but remember that I won’t let it hurt you.” I also keep an eye out for dogs at public events, and depending on the size and demeanor of the dog, I’ll either take Sawyer’s hand and talk him through it saying things like “See how calm he is? He’s not going to hurt us” as we walk past or I’ll change our route to walk further away from the dog. He’s getting better slowly but surely… at my nephew’s baseball tournament last weekend, we were able to walk right next to a small, calm dog without Sawyer crying. He was still nervous, though, and his breathing picked up a little, but afterwards I made sure to tell him “I’m so proud of you! You walked right past that little dog. And see? He didn’t bark or jump or anything!” I’m hoping that the more we have dog experiences like that one, the more Sawyer will be able to tolerate dogs.
It’s pretty heartbreaking to me that Sawyer is so scared of dogs. As his mom, it breaks my heart seeing Sawyer upset and afraid of anything, especially when he’s so scared that he’s crying and shaking. As a dog lover, I pray that someday we can help Sawyer overcome his fear of dogs because especially now that the girls don’t live with us and it’s mostly Sawyer and me, I would love to have a dog to love and take care of. However, Sawyer’s fear makes that impossible and I would never want to do anything to make it worse, so “surprising” him with a new puppy is out of the question. Dogs are everywhere in the world, though, so I know I have to find a way to help Sawyer learn to be more comfortable around dogs. I have thought about exposure therapy, where Sawyer would be gradually exposed to dogs in controlled settings to help him become more comfortable around them. Sawyer may never love dogs, but hopefully eventually he will get to a point where he can be around them without fear and anxiety.
Do you have a loved one with an irrational fear? What are some ways you have helped them cope with their fears?