Autism & Therapy Cats
Some of you may recall that back in December, we got a cat.
The scary truth is that we live in the country, in an old house, and we were having mouse and rat problems (yes, rats! Huge rats!!!). We'd been doing everything we could think of to rid ourselves of our unwanted house guests, but they are persistent little buggers, and I figured a cat could a least help a little, right?
Well, so far she doesn't seem to have caught anything...and we've even caught a rat in a trap since getting her, but that's beside the point because something else has happened. This little cat has stolen my son's heart away! I was going to say, "this little cat has trapped my son's heart", but that's too much cheesiness for anyone! Haha, I still shared it anyway!
My son Caleb has autism. Autism is a mental condition, generally present from early childhood, and is marked by difficulty in the areas of communicating, connecting to other people, using language, and abstract concepts. and engaging in repetitive, often unusual behaviours.
Caleb is 11, and still has trouble with communication. He talks, has many words, and can sometimes carry on something of a conversation (though usually it has to be about the subject of his choosing, and even then, the response you get may not be an appropriate response, it may just be some random echo from something else he knows). His language skills are good and bad. For instance, he will say when he's irritated with you, "you're creeping me angry", which of course makes no sense, but we're sort of used to it around here! And abstract concepts (like figures of speech) are still a struggle for him, especially when using simile, hyperbole, metaphors, & irony. Whenever I say something is like something else, for instance, "Your sister is like a cat!" he will quickly respond with, "Abby is not a cat, Abby will be a little girl?!?"
Caleb's relationships are different. He clearly has a desire to have friends. This is evident in that he will often keep hanging around certain students at school, whether they are being nice to him or not, or by him asking "where are the girls" when he realizes his sisters aren't in the house for whatever reason, and he is always clearly excited when we tell him we are going to certain peoples homes to visit.
But now we've got this cat. Bella.
Bella has scratched Caleb's face. He still loves her. Bella runs away from him. He still loves her. She hides from him in the drawers of his captains bed. He thinks that's the best, actually.
But, she is more often painfully patient with him. She will sit with him for long periods of time, letting him whisper in her ears, and tickle her back.
I didn't realize the power she had over him, or how much he thought of her, until one day when he was having a "meltdown" and was just so upset. Our usual practice now for Caleb when he is getting frustrated and angry is to send him to his room to let the feelings play out in a location where he feels safe, and won't be looked at or bothered by his sisters.
I can't remember what he was so upset about on this one particular day, but he just couldn't get a hold of himself after having been in his room for quite some time. So, I went to him and asked if he wanted to lay down in my bed (which he loves and thinks of as a special thing). He got into my bed, and started really crying. Through his tears he choked out "Caleb will need Bella the cat?". So I asked him to clarify, "you want Bella right now?". "Yes. Caleb will need Bella the cat" he answered.
I found the cat and brought her to him, and he took her in his arms, put her up to his face, and started sobbing! It was heartbreaking and beautiful all at once. He sat in my bed crying into the side of the cat, and then talking to her and saying, "Caleb will be so very upset", "Caleb will not like to feel so red (angry)". And then, after about 15 minutes, he got up (still holding the cat) and came back downstairs, happy and ready to go on with his day.
I was left thinking, "what just happened?"
Therapy cats, it turns out, although it sounds like a strange notion, are an actual thing!
After this incident with Caleb and Bella, I Googled "autism and therapy cats" and learned that this odd idea, is something that has been going on for a while!
I feel like most people know of therapy dogs, but there are also therapy horses, and even therapy dolphins!
When most people think of cats though, they generally think of aloof kind of creatures who are self-centred. And, well, that is true for a lot of cats, but not for all cats! That's the same as saying all dogs are loyal and loving, or all horses are the same (the saying "a horse is a horse!").
Our cat proved early on that she was very, very, very cuddly and social. Not so much to the children at first....because the girls mostly chased her around and held her up by her armpits to make her "walk" on her hind legs. Sheesh.
Caleb however wasn't ever interested in "playing" with her, he just wanted to hold her, press his face into her, whisper in her ear, and give her "tickle backs" (yes, he tickles the cats back)!
Just a month ago, we had been away for almost the whole day, and came home quite late. As soon as we walked in the door Bella was there, meowing a greeting. Caleb, (who when asked about how his day was at school says "good"), walked in and said, "Bella! I missed you! I will be in Bancroft all day to visit our friends!".
My husband and I were literally stunned! I turned to my husband and said, "I wish he would talk to us like that about his day!"
I knew our cat had moved in to be more than a rodent catcher.
Caleb is very protective and possessive of the cat. If his sisters are being too silly with her, he will shout, "HEY! You will not be mean to my friend Bella the cat!!!", or if she's outside and he doesn't know that, he will walk around saying (in a hilariously fake/copy-cat way), "Heeeeeere Bella, Bella, Bella! Heeeeeeere Bella the cat!".
As for Bella's thoughts on her new job, well, she lets him know when she's had enough! He's been scratched, and she runs away from him. But these things seem to be happening less and less often. I'm not going to get all cat-spiritual on you, but I will say that I think she's getting used to Caleb and understanding him better. I also think she's realizing that he isn't home all day and her excessive deep-pressure cuddling is only for a small amount of time every day so she's being more chill about it!!!
Recently, Caleb was sick and home from school. When I told him he'd need to stay in bed to rest, his first question was, "Bella the cat will stay with Caleb?".
So, in between running to the bathroom to be sick, or being sick in the Spiderman bucket provided, he would be holding the cat. I wondered at one point in the day, "how does he keep getting the cat when he's only getting up to be sick?".
Well, maybe an hour after wondering that, I went back up to Caleb's room to see how he was doing. He had fallen asleep, but at the end of his bed sat Bella. All on her own accord. She could have been in 10 different places of her choosing having been released from Caleb's grip on her, but she was still there with him.
Again....not gonna get cat-spiritual, but it was really an amazing thing.
Caleb often says of Bella, "Bella will be my friend", "Bella is Caleb's best friend" or "Bella will love Caleb", and I think he's right.
What seemed to be a really lop-sided relationship is starting to turn into something a little more mutual.
Bella is not trained to be a therapy cat, but Caleb doesn't seem to mind. Neither do we, for that matter!
How are we trying to harness the power of the cat for Caleb? Well, she helps my sleepy and grumpy pre-teen lad out of bed in the morning! I'll go in to wake him up with the cat in my arms, and he opens his eyes and smiles and says, "Good morning Bella the cat" (I'm invisible, btw!), and he gets 5 minutes to cuddle before he needs to get up and get ready for the day. Or when he's having a hard time with something and is edging on a meltdown, I'll tell him to go to his room to have alone time, and I'll bring him the cat. This has helped enormously as he used to become so severely upset that his whole face would be blood-shot (it looked like his face was covered in deep purple freckles), but he now cries and holds Bella until he's feeling better.
He is learning that to be a good friend to Bella he can't hold her with a death grip, and that he needs to see and understand what his friend is telling him with her tail, ears, and voice (ya'll know what an angry cat looks and sounds like!).
His favourite "joke" right now is, "Bella the cat will look like a funny lemur!", which is kind of true.
I am surprised by this friendship though. We've had a dog and horses for years, and although Caleb really loves them, he never seemed so focused on them, and they never seemed to "stick" as therapy animals.
So, in the regular cat-fashion of doing things their way, our cat does whatever she wants and reaches out and befriends someone who struggles with making real friends. Maybe it just figures, since cats have a lot of autistic tendencies; sensitive hearing, single-mindedness, particular eating habits, aversion to water, and running away when someone reaches out to touch them! Perhaps there is an understanding there! : )
I think for Caleb, spending time with Bella can be a break from dealing with humans who can be confusing with social cues, or who can tease and hurt feelings (which are so abstract and hard to understand, but still felt). And in recent years Caleb has actually become more and more cuddly himself, to the point where I'm standing working at the hot stove, and Caleb comes up behind me for some hugging time, and I'm like, "Uh....not right now, pal!". This sweet cat is giving him so much cuddle time, and, praise the Lord, it keeps Caleb from being right at my heels while I'm working in my small kitchen!
Whatever the reasons, whatever the connections, whatever is going on between Caleb and Bella....we are so grateful for her. We found her in an ad on Kijiji. She was free! But she is invaluable, especially to Caleb.
So, I'm not saying if you're struggling with a child with autism, rush out and get yourself a cat. But I am saying, why not consider it? If you know someone with a cat, see if you can go over for a little visit and cat-time! Or take your child to an animal shelter and see what kind of reaction you get out of showing them the cats!
Our Bella....loud & vocal (I'm talking meowing with all her might every morning at 5am!!!), crazy cuddly, so pretty, so sweet. She is Caleb's best friend, and we are so glad for our four legged, furry cat therapist!
Oh, and P.S. read HERE for a beautiful story about a little girl with autism and her feline friend!
4/8/2016 06:24:17 am
you have such a gift with words. Loved this story
4/8/2016 09:28:43 am
Thanks, I appreciate that. And thanks for reading this and commenting-both things make my day! :)
4/9/2016 02:59:27 pm
❤️Love love love!
4/11/2016 04:23:15 am
12/1/2016 05:57:58 pm
Amy-Lyn, your quirky intro to this gorgeous story was enough to have me smiling and later crying with Caleb as he cried into the cat's fur. His heart reached out to hers and yes, for those few precious moments, you are invisible.
12/3/2016 05:32:27 pm
1/20/2018 03:22:53 am
THANK YOU! I loved reading this! I’ve been considering a cat as a therapy cat for my daughter with ASD for a while now and the other day we stopped at the shelter, just to look! Who was I kidding!! We left with a kitten who she found/ picked and who found/ picked her. He got her and she got him! The changes in her in the last couple of days and her bond with him already are unlike anything I’ve seen with/ for her and I’m so happy! I hope it continues as I know it’s only early days but even so the skills she’s learnt already and will continue to master (greeting him each morning, feeding him, changing the litter, realising when he needs a break etc) are invaluable!! I’m grateful for even these few days of inner peace she seems to have when with him and sure hope it continues!! But yes even if it doesn’t work out as planned he will still be a much cared for and loved member of our family!! The bond with her is just a bonus! A massive bonus!!
1/20/2018 05:42:34 pm
Thank-you Melissa for taking the time to read this, and to comment. I really appreciate it - it fills my bucket (as we say around here!)! I love that you have welcomed a cat into your family, and that your daughter has taken to him so whole-heartedly.
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Hi, I'm Amy-Lyn!
I am the lady behind this here blog! I live in the sticks with my animals, my super handsome husband, and my
3 amazing kids!
Here you'll find things from recipes (gluten-free, paleo, and strait up junk food!), DIY ideas, thoughts on raising a son with autism, and whatever else pops into my brain! : )
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