Six-year-old Iris Grace barely communicated at all in the early years of her life. She lives with severe autism. Her mother, Arabella Carter-Johnson, told the BBC that doctors feared she may never be able to communicate or develop normal relationships.
This daunting prognosis changed one day when the family decided to get a Maine coon cat, Thula. Almost immediately, Iris Grace began to open up and form a connection with their new pet.
According to the National Autistic Society, autism is a lifelong disability which begins in early childhood. People with autism can have trouble relating to others and may struggle to process the world around them. It exists on a spectrum: Some with the diagnosis lead relatively normal, independent lives. Others are so profoundly affected that they have a limited ability to speak.
In her early life, Iris Grace would barely look up when someone entered a room, and she rarely smiled or spoke.
However, after the family got Thula, the child began to articulate her needs more often. At first it was by way of giving the cat instructions (such as “sit, cat!”).
The fact that Thula is a large cat appears to be a bonus. When she sits on Iris Grace’s lap, her weight has a calming presence. The amazing bond between the two of them is clear when Thula joins in on homeschool activities.
There’s some evidence that pets can help children with autism, especially if the pet is brought into the family when the child reaches a key age (around 5 years old). In 2012, a French study found that “the arrival of a pet in a family has been shown to increase the level of interactions between family members”. In addition, “the new arrival of a pet potentially elicits more attention in individuals with autism, thus leading to a greater chance of bonding with the pet”.
Despite the difficulties of having a child with autism, Carter-Johnson affirmed that there is a good side too. “Different is brilliant”, she says. “I really mean it. Autism, to me now, is brilliant. It doesn’t have to be this grim diagnosis… I feel that if you work with the child and work with their interests, you’ll see a progression”.
Carter-Johnson has documented Iris Grace’s efforts to express herself through painting and her relationship with Thula on a website and now in a book published by Penguin, Iris Grace. She has also made a number of breathtaking YouTube clips which show Iris Grace at work and Thula supporting her.
This video shows them swimming together:
Another shows them around their home:
Iris Grace and Thula together show the amazing power of relationships between humans and animals. And her mother’s work to document Iris Grace’s striking improvements, as well as her brilliance, opens up the possibilities of a condition where hope has been hard to find.