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Fears, Phobias and Foibles

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My son, when he was eight years old, acquired quite suddenly a fear of developing countries. I don't know what prompted the onset of this phobia, but it was mortifyingly politically incorrect. At school, he refused to eat even a bite of his school lunch if seated next to his Asian classmate, a sweet pigtailed girl who in fact hailed from the heartland of American, Wichita Kansas. If someone of Asian descent were to come on the bus and sit next to my son, he would freeze and tremble. Many a Nando's chicken platter lay untouched as we were forced to hurriedly vacate our table mid-meal, depending on the race of our fellow diners.

Our subsequent trip to a highly esteemed Harley Street psychologist was disastrous. "Let's draw Asia," announced Dr. X exuberantly at the start of our visit. Her sugar-coated smile didn't fool my son for a second. She meant business, and we were clearly here for therapy, not cartography. Dr. X grabbed a purple crayola and began to sketch the much-feared continent. My son's disdain was palpable; as he impatiently pointed out, she had forgotten to add the Philippines. Dr X nervously added a few squiggly islands vaguely offshore. Another look at the map elicited another angry commentary; "You forgot Burma as well," my son added impatiently. Clearly, Dr X's knowledge of Asia was lacking. My son grabbed the purple crayon out of Dr. X's clutches and added the appropriate bump between Laos and Bangladesh. Dr X, clearly exasperated, threw down her crayon. Game over. "I cannot help your son," she glowered. A bill for £300 arrived promptly in the post several days later.

I learned an important lesson from this visit -- only choose intelligent therapists.

The developing country phobia has subsided over the years. When I check the history on our Mac at home, it is well represented with websites such as "Hot Asian Women" and "Singapore Playmates," so we must be making some headway. My son still refuses to eat in Chinese restaurants, however; the ubiquitous buddha sculptures frighten him. He is, nevertheless, very happy with his weekly Chinese takeaway dinner, as long as I order him numbers 11, 15, 89, and 90 from the menu. No deviations allowed.

The developing country phobia was one of many pervasive fears that have colored our journey over the past decade and a half. Another one was facial hair. Our son was terrified of men with mustaches and beards. I will never forget a family trip we took to Venice. The elaborate advance work required before we could select a restaurant for dinner was daunting. First off, were there any gluten free offerings on the menu? Forget pizza and pasta. Did they serve french fries (because of sensory integration issues our son struggled with the textures of various foods, and therefore had an extremely limited culinary palette)? Did any of the waiters have mustaches or beards? Were there any frightening and imposing sculptures or foreboding paintings adorning the dining room? We usually ended up at the least appealing restaurants around, the kind of watered-down Italian restaurant offering laminated menus in German, English and French, featuring photographs of plasticine rigatoni.

I now better understand the origin of many of my son's fears. Like many children with Asperger's Syndrome, he has a difficult time reading emotions. Even now, at the age of 15, it is confusing for him if someone says something unfriendly while smiling. Kind face, cruel words: a mixed message. Asian facial features are different than Caucasian features. Our son found it impossible to read the emotions in an Asian person's eyes. He felt that Asians looked angry. And the facial hair phobia? Mustaches and beards hid the tilt of a smile or the downward scroll of a frown, leaving my son confused once again about facial expressions and non-verbal cues.

My son will always struggle more than his neurotypical peers to master the art of reading non-verbal cues, but I have found that practice really helps. Our son is a film buff. He can name the director, screenwriter and even minor actors of nearly any film from the 1940's to the present day. I sometimes wonder if movies intrigue him because they are studies of human interaction. My son will often watch the same film over and over (just this past weekend, he enjoyed a triple viewing of The Last King of Scotland). Through these repeated viewings, he has the opportunity to really carefully study facial expressions and verbal exchanges among the characters. These movies are, for him, more than entertainment; they are templates for human behavior.

So, what advice can I dispense to parents of children on the Autistic Spectrum who struggle with phobias? First of all, remember that behaviors that appear irrational to you are there for a reason. They could likely be linked to sensory issues or difficulties related to social cue reading. Seek help, but select your professionals with care. Your practitioner and your child need to be in synch. Create a calm environment at home, stick to a soothing and calming routine... and study your atlas.