Cat Expert's Note: Cats are slowly moving into their own as therapy animals, and are being used in convalescent homes and other institutions for that purpose. However, though a lot has been written about the use of horses and dogs with autistic children, little, if anything, has been previously written about cats. This amazing true story may open your eyes to the possibilities of cats' usefulness as a therapy for autistic children.
I'm a widowed dad with a daughter and son. My son lives with autism. That's how we got into cats. Long before he was born, I entered the field of neuroscience and worked with children who have neuropsychological disabilities. Little did I know that my chosen career would come in handy at home. When my son was four and my daughter nine, my wife died very unexpectedly. I was left alone with a little girl and boy. The little boy lived with autism.
For those who may not know, autism is a communication disorder. The more severe cases often have a co-morbid mental retardation. Fortunately, Richard does not have mental retardation. He does have the communication difficulties that people with autism face every day. At the age of four, he was still non-verbal. I remembered that in one of my books I had read something about a girl with autism who had been brought out of her inner world through her relationship with horses.
I decided, why not. Let's give it a try.
I took Richard to every possible place where he could encounter and be close to animals. He never expressed any interest. Then one day, we visited the local animal shelter. I had grown up with dogs. My mother was "psychologically allergic" to cats. She was one of those people who believed that cats were loners and had no personality.
So, I walked past the cat room into the dog area. Again, I was disappointed that my son just stared at him at everything else, but not at the dogs. They seemed to hold his attention for a few seconds.
As we were leaving, once again we walked past the cat area doors. I figured, What the heck? It's worth a try. Though I have no idea what he'll find interesting in there. We walked into the cat area, which was significantly smaller than the dog area. As we walked past the cages, there in a corner was a black and white tuxedo cat. Suddenly my four-year-old non-verbal son pointed to the cage and said, "Cat!" That was it. That day we took the cat home. My son could not come up with a name for his new friend. My daughter, who has always been very protective of her younger brother tried to help find a name that he could pronounce. Finally, the name Clover was discovered.
From day one, we heard Richard having conversations with Clover when no one was looking. He had language. He needed someone with the patience to listen and who did not ask him to repeat himself or explain what he meant. Clover had all those qualities. Later we added Tigger to our family. This time Richard named him, another breakthrough.
Richard is now 19 and in college. Tigger and Clover were older when they came to us. Now they are in Kitty Heaven. But Linus and Melody have joined our family. They are five-years-old and have been with us since they were kittens. They did homework with Richard while he was in high school. To this day I believe that they can do algebra and chemistry better than he can. We laugh about this at home.
Richard is majoring in art and Linus is his major critic. He sits quietly by him when he's drawing or working on a project, just as he did while he was working on algebra and chemistry. I still swear that I hear them talk about lighting and perspective. Melody doesn't stay behind either. She can't wait for him to finish a project to take a peek. While Linus coaches, Melody waits patiently in another room and comes into vocally check out the finished product.
Thanks to the bond between our feline relatives and us, Richard has friends, attends college and is not ashamed of having autism. He once told me that he believed all cats have autism, because "Cats are like me. They look at everything and think about it when everyone thinks they're not paying attention and they only talk when they have something to say." I'm not an animal psychologist, but I do know one thing . . . life has been a blessing since we discovered "Cat!"
"And the Lord God made them all"
I would caution that I don't know if pets improve the lives of all children with autism. However, there is a great deal of anecdotal material out there, including books, of people with autism whose lives have been enriched by domesticated animals such as cats, dogs and horses. I have known a little boy with autism who is a very different person when he is with his dog. I have strong suspicion that there is some correlation.