Iris Grace is a five year old child with autism. After her diagnosis, Iris’ parents looked for activities through which she could effectively express herself and ultimately bought her Thula, a Maine Coon cat. In a heart-warming story, Thula has now become more than just a therapy cat; she is Iris’ best friend.
“Thula has lowered Iris’ daily anxieties in life and keeps her calm,” her mother has said. Initially Iris’ parents took her to equine therapy but she had little interest in horses at that time. The family then began to think about a therapy pet. They bought a dog but Iris disliked being licked and the hyperactivity of the dog upset her. For a while the family gave up on the idea of a therapeutic pet until Iris had a positive encounter with a cat.
Maine Coons are known as an intelligent and gentle breed. Thula is perfect as a therapy cat with her docile and compassionate nature.
“Whatever activity we are doing, Thula is there and wants to help and be involved,” Iris’ mum explains. “Waterplay, playdoh, painting, bike rides, iPad, puzzles, marble run, drawing … she offers Iris her companionship, friendship and supports me in encouraging Iris to interact.”
Children with autism may benefit from spending time with animals, whether they are part of a formal animal therapy programme, farm animals or family pets. The presence of an animal can help a child to focus and provides an opportunity for interaction that is soothing to the perpetually over-stimulated synapses in an autistic child’s brain.
Autism educators have observed for some time that when autistic children find it difficult to relate to people, they sometimes find it easier to bond with animals. This finding alone can be a blessing to a family with one or more autistic children. By integrating interactions with animals into formalised plans of care, therapists and parents can help the child improve behaviour management, emotional awareness and skills acquisition (including gross motor, fine motor, communication and care-taking skills). Animals also provide opportunities for sensory integration, reinforce task completion and stimulate social interaction.
Choosing a type of animal or method of interaction that best matches the child’s needs and interests is also important. For example, therapeutic horseback riding or dolphin therapy may be more appealing to one child with autism than another. Dogs can make loving additions to a family, particularly if the dog is a specially trained service dog. Choosing animal therapy or any other option is a personal decision and like any choice concerning health and welfare, should of course be made with care.