Autism and Fears

For several of Nigel’s early years, both before and after his autism diagnosis, his dad and I thought that he was afraid of the vacuum cleaner. It wasn’t until we learned about sensory issues – and noticed that Nigel had the same “fear” of leaf blowers, blenders, food processors, and air hand driers in public restrooms – that we began to realize that he didn’t fear these objects. He could not filter the loud, invasive sounds they made. The sounds were so painful to him that he learned to run to a different room if he saw the things that produced them. And when he couldn’t run to a different room, he would scream. He wouldn’t even cover his ears because he didn’t know how. It actually took him a couple of years to learn that he could do that when he heard a loud sound.

As the years went by, covering his ears became second nature to him. And slowly he learned how to filter the sounds that were previously so agonizing for him. But as his sensory issues became more manageable, he developed real fears to take their place. I’ve mentioned before that he is afraid of bees and other flying insects, and a close second, also in the flying category, are bats. Yes, my son, the zombie movie aficionado, is afraid of bats. And this, in addition to Aidan’s mild claustrophobia, has prevented us for years from going as a family to nearby Oregon Caves National Monument, which I enjoyed as a child. But I am nothing if not determined. Every year for the past five years I’ve tried to chip away a little at the bat fear. One year I bought Stellaluna. Last year for homeschooling we studied bats on Wikipedia, something that Nigel likes to refer to. This year I found my old Oregon Caves pamphlet which distinctly says that the bat population “peaks in the fall when bats swarm to breed,” and told him that both times I had been to Oregon Caves, I had not seen a single bat. So this year, in the spring, he was finally ready. And Aidan decided that since Nigel was going to stare down a fear, he was game to do the same.

We arrived early so that we wouldn’t have to wait long for our tour, and started off with our Ranger tour guide and a group of fifteen other people. We spent over an hour inside the cave of amazing calcite formations, and both boys did really well. At one point, Nigel got a little nervous because the Ranger mentioned that there might be a bat in one of the rooms up ahead, and Nigel growled at another visitor to shut off his camera so that the flash would not upset the bat, causing it to fly into his face. But Nigel quickly regained his composure and proceeded into the room, and I was so proud of him that he went ahead in spite of his fear. Much to our relief, there were no visible bats, and Aidan was fine until the very end, when the cave started to get to him. But he stayed calm, and they both completed the tour. Yes, you read that correctly – they both completed the tour! No panic attacks! No screaming, yelling, or bolting! No whining even! I guess it was like teaching Nigel to cover his ears when he was little – it just took a few years of teaching and preparation. When he was ready, he was fine.

As a treat, I took them to get burgers for dinner at a restaurant. Right after our food arrived and we started digging in, the opening lyrics of a Queen song began. Nigel stopped and listened. “Hey – what’s this song?” he asked.

“‘Bohemian Rhapsody,'” Aidan answered.

“No,” Nigel said, still listening. Then he remembered. “It’s ‘We Are the Champions.'”

“Oh, yeah,” Aidan agreed. (I just discovered while writing this post that last week this song was performed on the season finale of American Idol. The boys and I do not watch this show, so they were trying to remember from hearing one of my old CDs years ago.)

Then Nigel looked at me, making full eye contact. “This is the perfect song for us to hear tonight. You know – because we are the champions of the cave.”

I just gazed into his gorgeous medium brown eyes that I seldom see directly and tried to choke down my burger. “Yes,” I said. “You guys are the champions of that cave.”

Then Nigel quietly sang, “We are the champions . . . of the cave.” And my heart swelled with pride.

 “Paradise Lost” – the room where the bat was supposed to be.

Nigel and a new friend!

End of the tour – jacket and hood completely off!

17 thoughts on “Autism and Fears

  1. kristi

    We made a trip to the caverns 3 years ago. We had a guided tour and TC was all over the place. It was awful.

    We are attempting it again in a few weeks, but with no guided tour and we are hoping for good things!

  2. mama mara

    “… I am nothing if not determined”

    That’s what makes you such an amazing mother. This is the most inspiring post I’ve read in a long time. Rocky struggles with a lot of phobias too, and I LOVE the idea of slowly chipping away at them. Thank you! Bug phobia, here I come. *chip chip*

  3. Carrie

    “You know – because we are the champions of the cave.”

    And the jacket and hood OFF?


    A day of gigantic successes. BTW, I went to the Oregon Caves as a kid, still remember them!

  4. Paulene Angela

    You’ve all come a long way since the days of the vacuum cleaner.


    I’d want to wear a hoodie with bats around.

  5. Patrick Leer

    Are those the caves in lava? I remember crawling and slithering through them years ago somewhere in Oregon. They were creepy. I almost felt entombed. Yes, crank up Queen after climbing out of that!

    Interesting about vacuum cleaner. Here a vacuum cleaner is avoided but a power lawnmower is a source of attraction. Go figure!

    Caregivingly Yours, Patrick

  6. Cheryl

    That’s great! Glad you all were able to enjoy your special trip together! You are all champions in my book! :0)

  7. Kate

    What a great story. Where those caves located? Might be fun to go to. I’ve heard there are Sea Lion Caves near here, where you can go see a massive amount of sea lions in caves. It’s an hour away actually. But I actually hate sea lions because they are amazingly noisy. Even the 10 or 20 by the docks in Newport are so noisy you can hear them at almost either end of town (although thankfully the sound is muted), so I can’t imagine what a cave full of hundreds of them would sound like and I don’t want to.

    Good for you and your boys for facing their fears! What a feeling of accomplishment.


  8. Fearless Females

    Ewww, bats!! I think Nick would LOVE that cave, he would call it the bat cave (refering to Batman—he loves superheroes). I’ve been inside one of those caves in VA, and can remember it vividly. Good for you!! And good for Nigel! Loved seeing the photos–before and after..

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  10. Tanya Savko Post author

    Thanks, everyone. It was quite a day!

    Patrick – the lava caves are actually different caves than Oregon Caves. In Oregon Caves, you have to watch your head a few times, but you’re always walking upright. No crawling! You wouldn’t catch me in a cave like that!

    Kate – Oregon Caves is in southern Oregon. If you click on the link (in light green type – hard to see) in the second paragraph, it should give the location.

  11. goodfountain

    What a terrific and inspiring post. I am always amazed by kids who work hard to overcome fears.

    There’s just something really special about that.

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