Susan Tanori is a Stone Soup Group Parent Navigator in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her daughter has been diagnosed with autism. This is her story of how her family dealt with some of her daughter’s phobias using Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and a process called “desensitization.”
My daughter began to show signs of being afraid of dogs when she was three and a half years old. It started one day in the winter of 2012 when she passed by a bottle of carpet cleaner, housed in a closet near her bedroom, the bottle had a picture of a dog and cat on it. She would run by the closet and scream, “NO CATS! NO DOGS!” By summer 2012, the fear had gotten so bad that her bus driver changed routes due to some neighbor’s dogs charging the bus. My daughter was inconsolable. She practically had to be carried off the bus, her little body frigid, almost paralyzed with fear.Anytime she heard our family pets bark or even the jingle of keys (that sounded like our dogs’ tags), she would begin to scream, “NO DOG!” I knew that we could not avoid dogs all her life; I knew something needed to be done. I shared this fear with her ABA therapist, and together, we worked to help her overcome her fears.
At home, we read about dogs in picture books and progressed to videos. I moved the dog cages to the other side of the garage. My daughter did not want to go into the garage at first, but she realized that she had to get into the car to go to school (a very good reinforcement)! She was highly motivated to get in the car, and she did it everyday.
After a few months of this, we started entering and exiting the car near the dog cages. At first, this was really awful. It was like she was frozen and couldn’t walk at all. I would carry her past the dogs, speaking in a calm, neutral voice, “The dogs aren’t going to hurt you. Look at the dogs; they are our friends.” Eventually, we would pause by the dogs, and she would look down. Later, she began to address the dogs “Hi dogs!” or ask questions about them “Is that dog a boy?”
It was kind of fortunate in winter of 2013 that I had a baby, because it was the perfect excuse not to be able to pick up my daughter. At first she was reticent and would run quickly past the cages. I never chided her for the behavior, and eventually, the run became a walk and she would always make a comment or ask a question. Around the same time, a therapy dog “Dexter” was introduced to the therapy office; this was not easy for my daughter at first. However, the dog was always there in the background, and he was introduced slowly and systematically to her over the next couple of months in the same type of neutral manner.
I noticed a big change going into spring 2013. We had spent the winter trying just to walk by the dogs and talking about them. I started to introduce the idea that maybe she would want to feed them and that could be her chore in the future. She wasn’t ready to touch the dogs, but she asked if she could sit next to them. We happened to have a wagon out for the Autism Walk, so I would set her in the wagon and each day would push it closer to the dogs. I received positive reports that she was interacting more with Dexter in the therapy office as well. She was petting Dexter and even asking to take him on walks!
By summer 2013, she said that she wanted to feed the dogs. She actually initiated picking up the scoop and dipping out the food on her own. At first, the food buckets would only make it half way between the food bag and the cage. Each time that she fed them, she would get it a little closer. I was always very neutral in my tone of voice. “That’s ok, I’ll finish up.”
Now, it is fall 2013, almost two years after the dreaded “No dog! No cat!” incident. She is feeding the smaller dogs, taking them for walks, and asks to go play with the bigger dogs in their outdoor kennels. She actually goes into the kennel and feeds them treats. She laughs when they lick her! The best day was seeing her hug her dog, a 75-pound bi-eyed husky with a recent diagnosis of epilepsy (yes, the irony), pressing her face into his fluffy fur, and saying, “I love you!”