A Lonely Education

On raising a child with non-verbal learning disability.

Anxiety and NLD

Could your child's fear be a symptom of something bigger?

dog phobia
According to LD Online, people with NLD have "difficulty understanding other people and anticipating events [which] can lead to a feeling of chaos and uncertainty. They are inclined toward developing secondary internalizing disorders such as stress, anxiety and panic, and phobias."

Indigo was two-and-a-half when his phobias began. A small, neighborhood dog had run up to him at daycare, barking at his heels. I didn't think much of the incident. Indigo had never seen a dog before.

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I was not prepared for Indigo's hysterical outburst when we walked to the grocery store a few days later. We had gotten a few yards down the street when Indigo screamed at the top of his lungs. I jumped in front of his stroller and looked for signs of injury. Indigo clawed at me, scratching my neck, my chest, and my face. I searched for a bee sting or blood - anything to explain his screaming. Indigo managed to sputter, "Dog!"

I scanned the area but the neighborhood was empty. Indigo's panic attack toppled his stroller over. I released him from his lap strap and he hurtled into my arms. Turns out, the dog he saw was actually a squirrel. Indigo couldn't differentiate other small animals from dogs. Indigo went into a panic every time he saw a squirrel, chipmunk, bird, or cat.

Sue Thompson explains panic attack symptoms in her article, Stress, Anxiety, Panic and Phobias: Secondary to NLD, "difficulty breathing or shortness of breath; pounding heart; pain or other discomfort in the chest; choking or smothering sensations; feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint; a sense of unreality; tingling in hands or feet; hot or cold flushes; sweating or chills; trembling or shaking; and feelings of hopelessness, impending doom, or loss of control. These symptoms gradually fade over the course of an hour or so, but the individual may feel "disoriented" for several hours afterward."

dogs and balloons
Dogs and balloons seemed to be everywhere we went.
Indigo's phobias expanded to include balloons and animated stuffed animals like the ones at Chuck E. Cheese and the Easter Bunny. His anxiety attacks occurred frequently, causing him to hurt himself and others. On many occasions, he almost died because he ran toward busy roads and other dangerous places to escape the "dog." Fortunately, I always caught him before he got seriously injured. I did my best to prevent panic attacks by asking friends to lock away their pets before visits and attending parties that did not have balloons. 

Over the years, I familiarized Indigo with animals. I pet friends' cats and dogs, held Indigo close as we observed small animals in the park, and read books about animal heroes. His uncle got a German Sheppard when Indigo was about six or seven. We introduced Indigo every time we visited. By the time Indigo was eight, his hysterical outbursts calmed to slight body tremors. By nine, he played in the back yard with his uncle's dog. He even fed him treats out of his hand. The next few years, Indigo touched my side and looked for approval before he entered any space with an unknown animal.

I had no idea that Indigo's phobias were related to NLD, or that each attack was as debilitating as the one prior because people with NLD cannot associate new with past experiences. I still wonder if Indigo could have been diagnosed earlier if specialists had paid more attention to my long list of concerns including his phobias. I urge parents who worry their children may have learning disabilities to write down every issue, even if it doesn't seem relative, and share the list with specialists before testing.

Today, Indigo's phobia of balloons is completely gone, and he loves animals. I still announce pets when we visit someone's house for the first time. 

"Loretta has a dog. Her name is Ally. She barks real loud and jumps, but she is friendly. Are you ready to go inside?"

I sigh with relief each time Indigo gives me his teenager eye roll and says, "Of course. Let's go."

Be sure to read Anxiety and NLD Part Two.

© Sera Rivers

Sera Rivers is a writer, journalist, and mother of a teenage boy with nonverbal learning disability.

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