This guest blog post is by photographer and mother Arabella Carter-Johnson of Leicestershire, England.
Looking at a photograph of my 4-year-old daughter Iris, you wouldn’t think that she was any different than any other 4-year-old little girl. And yet, she is. Iris is on the autism spectrum. She rarely speaks and has great trouble with interacting with others, but expresses herself through movement and art. Since her diagnosis in 2012, with the help of many experts, we were able to learn about how we could help our daughter. Iris changed dramatically in just a short space of time. We still have a long way to go with her, but we are having many more good days than bad ones. One of Iris’ favorite activities is painting, it relaxes her and she can spend hours at a time painting on watercolour paper in our kitchen.
In addition to painting, our new Maine Coon kitten has become my daughter’s new best friend, and has helped her in ways I never could have imagined.
Over the Christmas holiday, we had a house guest: a beautiful Siberian cat we were looking after for a friend. Iris had formed a strong bond with this cat so I began to look into finding a cat for Iris. I researched several cat breeds to find one with all of the character traits I was looking for. The Maine Coon fitted the bill and as luck would have it there was an established breeder not that far from our house. The breeder had a kitten who wasn't by any means the biggest or strongest, but was the most friendly, kind kitten she had ever known. Understanding that we were searching for a very special character, she thought that the female kitten would be perfect for us.
The kitten has been at Iris's side since she arrived and slept in her arms during her first night here like her guardian angel. She is a true Maine Coon: affectionate, loving and intelligent. It seemed like they were old friends as I watched them on the sofa, the kitten attentively looking at the iPad screen with Iris. She purrs non stop. We have named her Thula, pronounced 'Toola' after one of Iris's favourite African lullabies called 'Thula, Thula' meaning peace and tranquillity in Zulu.
Our morning routine is changing as a result of Thula’s presence. Iris, once slow to stir and difficult to get going before 9 A.M. now seems to have springs in her feet. She wakes up with a wide smile with her new friend beside her, and I hear her say 'more cat' as she walks following her to the stairs.
Thula’s constant presence and gentle nature is having a remarkable effect upon Iris who is nonverbal most of the time. I am hearing more words. Iris is giving instructions to Thula. “Sit, cat,” she says when Thula is trying to play on Iris’ iPad. Iris says it with such authority that the kitten obediently sits down with her striped legs neatly together. Unlike most children of Iris’ age, she doesn’t maul, stroke or pick up the kitten constantly. Their relationship is based upon companionship. If Iris wakes during the night, Thula is there to settle her. It’s as though she instinctively knows what to do. When Iris gets distressed during the day, this little kitten doesn't feel frightened, but rather, stays by Iris and distracts her from her difficulties.
I wanted to share Iris's story to raise awareness of how beneficial and therapeutic a cat can be in the life of a child with autism, Thula is helping Iris is ways I could only imagine, it's incredible.