Sam has a phobia of dogs. Or at least, we first noticed that he was scared of dogs. Then we found it was also cats, then foxes, and guinea pigs. And chinchillas.
For a boy who has very limited communication, Sam found a very effective way to express his disquiet upon seeing these animals (or, as time went on, pictures of them): by gagging or sometimes actually being sick. Maybe the whole thing started because he happened to be sick when a dog was around, so the two became conflated in his mind and seeing a dog triggered vomiting. Who knows – Sam can’t tell us.
Either way, it started last summer and got progressively worse. At the beginning Sam would gag when we saw dogs in the park. Then he gagged at some dogs in TV programmes, sometimes being sick. Then it grew to include drawings in books, or dog-like bears, or cats. And plastic toys of animals. And TV adverts for plastic toys of animals. We sent the ’12 Dogs of Christmas’ DVD which someone gave him as an unfortunate but well-meaning present to the charity shop.
We get worried about Sam being sick for a whole number of reasons. Nutrition: because he needs all the calories he can get. Safety: because he chokes easily. Health: because he is prone to chest infections and repeated vomiting could lead to aspiration (breathing in stuff which doesn’t belong in lungs). And mess: because he tends to be sick on his chair or carpets which is a pain to deal with.
We got to the point where we would avoid or switch off TV programmes or books that had characters that triggered a reaction. One morning, a rogue TV show slipped through and Sam was so sick that we had to let the bus go and I drove him to school once we’d washed and changed him. He was unable to engage at all with the mobile petting zoo when it visited his school without gagging. He started gagging when we told stories about him gagging earlier in the day when he saw a dog. So much gagging.
It was having a significant negative effect on our day-to-day lives and we were wondering how to get some help. By coincidence, we saw a hospital psychologist about something unrelated and she arranged a course of therapy for Sam at the hospital with a trainee psychologist. We were very lucky to be offered this – the difficulty of access to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services is well documented and I doubt we would have got such personalised treatment as quickly or easily if we had waited for a referral.
We have just finished a block of sessions where we worked with the psychologist to draw up a hierarchy of Sam’s fears – with talking about dogs with him in earshot at the bottom, through to him stroking an actual dog at the top. We figured that we’d focus on dogs and hope the chinchilla fear abated as a result.
Already, Sam has clearly demonstrated that he can learn to manage his anxiety – stories and pictures which made him gag the first time he heard or saw them are okay after a few weeks. We still have a way to go but are seeing real progress. I inadvertently tested this in our local shop last week. I went to get some milk and when I came back Sam was gagging for no apparent reason. Then I noticed I had left him directly opposite a card rack which featured literally nothing but photos of dogs! A few months ago he probably would have been sick, but this time we talked about it, and he recovered really quickly. You wouldn’t believe how many dog images there are in the world once you start looking for them.
It’s not going to be linear progress; Sam is now okay with the cat that visits our garden, but gags when we read him a new story about a dog. But we can now envisage a time when we can go for walks in the park without being on high alert. We’re currently on holiday and have been to a farm park* where Sam happily saw and fed goats, sheep, horses and turkeys. This is huge progress compared to our visit to a Miniature Pony Sanctuary this time last year which Sam DID NOT LIKE.
What the therapy has made clear is that it is us adults who need to change our attitude as much as Sam. By immediately turning off offending TV programmes, or generally panicking at the first sign of Sam being sick, we were confirming to Sam that there was definitely something to worry about: these dogs must indeed be truly terrifying if all the grown-ups are so keen to get rid of them. We did all of these things for good reasons – it’s entirely justified to want to avoid Sam vomiting – but we were ultimately making things even worse and have had to retrain ourselves in how we respond. We also have to try to re-educate Eli, who has become so attuned to the problem that he shouts ‘DOG, DOG’ at the first sign of a canine, which isn’t hugely helping.
As with so much of parenting, it’s all about being calm and consistent, about forcing oneself to demonstrate to your kids that everything’s going to be okay even though they are scared. We have to risk Sam being sick. We can’t carry on visiting people’s houses, finding out as they open the door that they have a dog, and introducing ourselves by Sam threatening to vomit on their 100% wool rug.
When going through this process, we also have to bear in mind Sam’s consent. On the one hand, we are trying to improve Sam’s quality of life by helping him overcome the feelings of anxiety he gets when he sees or hears dogs (or cats, guinea pigs, bears…). But it’s perfectly reasonable for him to not like dogs. We have to respect his right to really not want to look at pictures of dogs for fun, or to be able to say ‘No’ if he’s terrified. Eli hates lawnmowers – we don’t make him stand around next to men mowing lawns.
We are treading a narrow and tricky path between pushing Sam’s comfort zone a bit, while respecting his right to move at his own pace. Ultimately, he should be able to express a dislike of dogs, or anything else, and have that view acknowledged. We would just like him to be able to express his dislikes like he does with other things he hates – by whinging, or sticking out his bottom lip, or loudly protesting – rather than puking all over us all.
* We went to the Cotswold Farm Park which was brilliant – easily accessible for wheelchairs, loads for both boys to do, and Sam particularly loved their maze. Unlike the Model Village in Bourton-on-the-Water which lets in those ‘confined’ to wheelchairs for free because they can’t actually get to any of the model village. Which would be sort of okay if they didn’t charge the rest of your family full price and be insulting and grumpy about the whole thing.