Has this ever happened to you?  Your child screams a blood-curdling scream from another room, and you run to her side only to find her pointing in terror at a bug so small it almost cannot be seen?  Or your son refuses to take the garbage out, indeed go out unaccompanied after dark at all?  Does your child freeze up in novel social situations?  All children have fears, of course this is normal.

But fears with a child on the autism spectrum can govern a child’s life, and sometimes, everyone else’s as well.  Autistic childrens’ fears are just a bit more pronounced, sometimes bordering on phobia.

The definition of phobia, according to Merriam-Webster OnLine Dictionary,  is: an exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation

Often, these fears arise from nowhere, with no preceding incident to trigger them. One day the child is just…afraid.

Some common fears (or phobias) that can affect children with autism

  • Dogs
  • Bugs
  • Loud noises
  • Dark
  • Dental work
  • Social anxiety
  • Elevators/ escalators
  • Heights
  • Monsters/boogeyman
  • Birds
  • Death
  • Clowns/ costumed characters
  • Medical treatments
  • Needles
  • Strangers
  • Bath time
  • Heights
  • Enclosed spaces
  • Departure from routine

At some point, all children have fears.  When does it become a problem?  When it interferes with a child’s day to day living in a negative way.  For instance, does the child fear bugs so much that she doesn’t want to go outside?  Does he constantly think of death and the fear associated with it to the point he won’t sleep?  Does she refuse to allow you to wash her hair without a struggle because she is afraid of the water pouring over her head? (and consequently, throw tantrums at the mention of any of these?) The child may have a problem with fear.  But what can be done about it?

Understand where the child is coming from. 

Children with autism are concrete and visual thinkers.  They see life in black and white, with few shades of gray.  If something is scary, it has always been scary, and will remain scary.   Children with autism also take things literally.  And they remember, even if they cannot always articulate their feelings.

Walk the child with autism through his fear.

Come alongside him and make sure he understands he is not alone. Fears can seem more manageable if an empathetic adult with experience helps the child to understand there is nothing to fear.  Do not belittle the child or yell at him for being afraid.  He doesn’t want to be afraid, and though it is irrational, it is very real to him.

Provide graduated exposure to the object the child fears. 

This is known in clinical circles as “desensitization.” Don’t just tell the child not to fear dogs, watch a video of a dog.  Take the child to the park and let him watch a dog from afar.  Arrange for the child to pet the neighbor’s dog, perhaps through a fence or on a leash.  During this time, manage the experience to make sure the encounter is manageable for the child. Avoid dogs that excessive jump or bark. Set the child up for success.

Consider writing a social story. 

A social story for children with autism is an effective tool in treating fears, especially in social situations. A story is written containing the child’s name and the role you would like him to play.  An effective social story includes the child’s name, the action he needs to take, the consequences for  taking it and a conclusion that the child will try to take the action.  Because children with autism are concrete, avoid the use of words such as will, must, supposed to.  Keep the story positive.  The child with autism must be given a safety net so that the story can be successful and he doesn’t feel defeated.

Remain positive. 

Never use the child’s fear as a motivator, no matter how effective it may be.  This will cement the fear and make it that much more difficult to address and treat.  Remember, the fear is very, very real to the child.  If he is told the boogeyman will get him if he doesn’t stay in bed, he will believe it. He will stay in bed, but at what cost?

Do not overprotect an autistic child who has fears. 

A parent may feel tempted to completely shelter a child who is afraid, but this is detrimental in the long run. If a parent protects the child from any exposure to dogs or bugs or whatever the child fears, the child learns those things really are to be feared; even the adult is upset by them.  Instead, be matter-of-fact about the cause of an autistic child’s fears.  Yes, the child is afraid, no he won’t always be afraid.  Yes, there is help in learning to deal with those fears.
Irrational fears can be one of the most difficult parts of autism.  But a parent is not powerless.  With a bit of knowledge and a little planning a parent can help a child with autism see that life doesn’t have to be so scary after all.

Image copyright maestropastelero, flickr, used under creative commons.

Tina Cruz is a writer, wife and mother of three children. The two youngest children have high-functioning autism and the oldest has undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome tendencies. She advocates for autism awareness and education, as well as acceptance. She views autism as a growth process and the opportunity to connect parents for support as a privilege. She is the editor of the Special Needs channel here at Typeamom. Her personal blog can be found at Send Chocolate.