Specific Phobia & Anxiety/Panic Attack + Vomiting

I was wondering if anyone has experience with ASD children with specific phobias so bad that they induce panic attacks and vomiting.

My boyfriend's five-year-old has always been avoidant of dogs. I have had my dog since she was a puppy, long before my bf and I started dating, so rehoming her was never an option. We have since moved in together, and we knew that introducing his child to my dog would be a slow and challenging process.

For the first few months, although the child was visibly anxious when she would be in the same room, he would tolerate the dog so long as she did not enter his personal space (otherwise he would begin crying and trying to hide or run away). 

However, he has recently regressed and now starts having violent panic attacks when the dog is in the same room (despite being fully across the room or even separated indoors/outdoors). He begins shivering, hyperventilating, and now projectile vomits if he sees the dog for more than a few minutes at a time.

We've read studies that indicate graded exposure is the best approach, but we don't want him to pull an Exorcist every time he sees the dog. Moreover, the child experiences a feeding issue and his only source of nutrition is supplement drinks and formula. We do not want him vomiting what little nutrition he does receive.

Does anyone have suggestions for how to decrease fear response and assist with overcoming specific phobias in an unharmful way? 

  • I'm sorry to tell you this but I don't think you're going to be able to solve the situation the way you want.

    For some reason your boyfriend's precious child is unable to get adequate nutrition when your dog is present. Since this is an immediate threat to the child's health one of two things has to happen - at least in the short term future. Either you take your dog and move back out or the kid stops visiting (or if he lives there full time he'll have to go live somewhere else).

    Does this sound drastic? Yes, and it is.

    It's great that you've been reading studies, but here's the problem with your approach.....while there are desensitization methods that can resolve this issue they can take months or years to work. You cannot allow a child to be malnourished, or even just terrified but well nourished, for the months or years it could take to fix this.....that would be abusive/negligent in the part of the child's parent/care giver. Additionally, in order for desensitization methods to work, they either require or are greatly helped by the person living in an environment that they experience as safe while the person deals with their issue. A person cannot move past panic attacks while living in the environment that causes (whether reasonably or not) the attacks.

    Does your boyfriend have primary custody or can the child stay with his mother for the months or years required for him to undergo treatment to the point that he stops vomitting every time he sees your dog?

    Also, I think at some point someone should be asking what happened in the last few months to prompt such a change. Most likely something bad has happened, whether you're aware of it or not, and your boyfriend's precious child is now terrified of your dog when he wasn't before. The fact that your dog may not even be at fault unfortunately doesn't change the solution.

    You seem like a really nice caring person, and I know this isn't the answer you were hoping for. 

    Additionally, your boyfriend or his son's mom, or whoever else has custody should take the child to see a psychologist or counselor and explain what's going on. They can give tailored advice specific to the whole situation, but you'll likely be disappointed if you expect them to say anything substantially different from what I've told you.

    If your relationship with your boyfriend is solid why not move out, but stay together, for a while and then try living together later when his son has dealt with his fears and maybe met your dog a few times on more neutral territory?

    And, oh yeah, maybe you were just trying to lighten a difficult and frustrating subject, but the kiddo isn't "pulling an exocist", he's expressing his terror the only way he can. Kids (or I guess probably not adults either) don't voluntarily engage in projectile vomitting. From a parenting perspective calling the behavior "pulling an exorcist" is an ineffective move that attributes bad will that he doesn't have to the child and might predispose a parent or caregiver to respond improperly and uncompassionately. This isn't behavior you can expect the child to work on changing. You've got to fall back, fix the environment, and then move forward more slowly if you're still wanting to move forward.

    Best wishes. And be sure to get the kiddo to their doctor psychologist counselor or all 3.

  • Maybe his brain/body just can’t accept the situation on its own. He might need intervention from a doctor (ie.. medicine) to help with anxiety.