One day my son was scooting around the house on his little blue scooter, laughing and looking out Crayola colored windows and the next he was too afraid to leave his room. When I look back I can recall how he was a little timid to go too far into one corner of our center room a few days before, but at the time it didn’t stand out as a significant moment. Sometimes things change when we aren’t paying attention and sometimes they are invisible.
Tot has always had pretty common irrational fears for children with ASD. Mostly they are borderline sensory, such as the sound certain air-conditioners make or the sound the dryers in bathrooms make. They were always sounds, albeit often sounds we couldn’t hear, but that didn’t make them less of a tangible thing. He learned to be brave early on and even at 6 years old he will sometimes squeeze our hands and let us know he was being brave when walking past the blow dryers at the grocery stores. Being brave was always something he had to do outside of our home, however. Home was supposed to be the place where he didn’t have to be brave anymore.
We have 2 Oscar Fish (Oscar & Luffy). They are Tot and Teens fish that they’ve had for well over a year, but of course they became my babies as I feed them. Tot always loved the fish. He is allergic to cats and has just recently grown out of his dog allergy, so fish have been our only pets for years. They have a tank in the corner of the center most room of our house (the Fireplace room) that connects to all the other rooms. Our home is pretty open aside from the hallway to the bedrooms/bath and the livingroom/playroom that was an addition. Needless to say, to go into any area of the house you have to pass through the center room, on the far end away from the fish. So when Tot all the sudden manifested a fear of the fish it ricocheted throughout the house.
At first we treated it like any other fear he’s had.
- First we approached talking about the fear. Communication is always best, but he didn’t want to talk about it. In fact, he’d do anything to try and not talk about it for days. When he eventually did begin to open up it was to tell us that the fish told him to go into the livingroom and so he did and had refused to go anywhere except his bedroom since.
- Second, we tried to slowly bring him back into the room little by little. This is a minor form of Desensitization Therapy, in other words, desensitizing his fear. However, every time he’d be in close proximity to the fish he’d completely shut down. He would close his mouth, stop talking, be quick about his movements and be clenching himself until he was out of the area where he would completely transform into his old self.
- Third, we talked about removing the fish – placing them in another area or out of the house entirely. I love my fish dearly, but at this point it had been 2 weeks without any progress and we were grasping at straws. Unfortunately, that proved to cause more anxiety. At first he was all for the idea of moving the fish, but that only moved the problem. If we moved them into his brothers room that is next to his, what if he became too afraid to go into his room or walk past the door to his room? If they went into the livingroom, would he then become fearful of that room? This wasn’t an option. When we discussed simply moving the fish outside of the home he was adamantly against it, in fact, he almost had a meltdown. We were back to square one.
It’s been a month and I’d love to say we’ve made great leaps and bounds, but we haven’t. In fact, he’s now exhibiting a fear of the livingroom with absolutely no explanation whatsoever. He can sit on the couch and watch his videos, but anything else is out of the question. Mostly he just wants to stay in his room, away from the livingroom and away from the fish. It gets to the point where some days we just go and eat in there because it’s easier than seeing him shut down or pretend he’s not hungry so he doesn’t have to sit at the table, but we can’t just live in the bedroom.
He likes to talk about how silly the fish are. He’s pretty rational when it comes to talking about the fish, but he’s still afraid of them. He’s learned to be brave for the time he has to be in the center room to put on his coat, go to the kitchen or get dressed after bathtime. These are routines we adamantly hold onto so as not to cave completely into his fears. He had gotten a new little Betta fish that he named Ryko that is in his room that he loves, so he’s not afraid of fish in general. We even went to Bass Pro today and he saw huge fish, way bigger than Oscars that he loved watching, so it isn’t the size of the fish. It is just his fish, in our house.
I don’t know what to do.
For the last week we’ve been doing a lot of research. My husband and I have been tracking down a therapist that works with kids with autism in his age group, which hasn’t been easy. I’ve been trying to figure out what type of therapy one needs and setting up appointments to visit autistic centers that provide therapies outside of school; something we’d never before felt necessary, but might be quicker than finding a psychiatrist with appointments available not 6 months from now.
I miss seeing him scooting around on his scooter through the hallway. I miss sitting with him and playing puzzles on the rug or cuddling on the couch in the morning. I miss a lot of little things that didn’t seem so monumental until our home became so restrictive, just as I missed the day when it all began.
I’m not sure if this is the beginning of something new or just an extreme anxiety created by an overactive imagination, but I hope eventually we find an answer. I’m putting this out there in the hope that maybe, maybe, some other parent has a child with a similar irrational fears that could lead us a hand. In the mean time, cross your fingers that the bedroom stays a safe place.