Autism is incredibly hard on children. Whether it’s the sensory overload of everyday noise, the difficulty in handling even small changes to routine, or the myriad of social and communication issues people who live with the condition might have, there’s no denying that for someone who’s growing up autistic presents incredible challenges for both the child and the parents who are helping them get acclimated to the world around them. Recently, a store instituted a quiet hour to make shopping easier for those who are affected by the disorder, and now a new story has made it clear how helpful companion animals can be for children who struggle to communicate.
Mashable reports that a young girl named Iris has had her whole life transformed by the addition of a cat to her family. Iris’s mother, Arabella Carter-Johnson told the outlet that her daughter, who’s diagnosed as severely autistic, could barely communicate with others when she was younger, but meeting a cat named Thula made it much easier for her to cope with the outside world.
In fact, Carter-Johnson said that Iris was “trapped in her own world” before Thula came along, only able to let her parents know what she wanted or needed with physical gestures that sometimes made her difficult to understand. She didn’t talk much and wasn’t communicative with those around her. Thula, who was named after one of Iris’s favorite lullabies, Mashable reports, quickly became Iris’s constant companion and the two began communicating with each other, which in turn made it easier for Iris to start telling her parents exactly what she needed. But that was just the beginning.
“So many things changed after Thula came into our lives. Iris found sleeping very hard, but that improved right away. She would settle in the evening and be eager to get up in the morning to see her best friend.”
Iris isn’t the only autistic child to have benefited from a pet, and her mother has written about the experiences the family has gone through in a recently published book about the girl’s incredibly important friendship with her animal companion. Previous research about children who live with autism and had relationships with dogs has shown that animal therapy can be incredibly helpful. The Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation has also written extensively about the benefits autistic children can gain from working with horses because it helps with both forming emotional bonds (that may be difficult to do with other people) and promoting progress in cognition and language abilities. Unlike people, who are often difficult to understand, especially if one is only able to think in concrete terms, caring for an animal may help a child strengthen their relationship and problem-solving skills (as well as helping with movement) which they can then use to interact with those outside of their relationship with the a horse, cat, or dog.
Rather than verbal communication, autistic children experience physical communication with the horses. They brush them, hug them, and pat them. By learning to care for the horse, they associate the care they provide with feelings and an emotional bridge is constructed. This bond can lead to social and communication skill production with other people in his life as well.
In Iris’s case, Thula helped her understand how to be affectionate with others, to give directions, and to be calm in situations that would have been traumatizing otherwise, such as putting on clothes (Carter-Johnson to Mashable that Iris hated “wearing tops” before Thula came along), riding in the car, and grooming herself. Iris has become more and more affectionate with Thula, hugging and kissing her, and her mother says Iris now reacts to other people touching her with laughter and pleasure. She’s even started holding her grandfather’s hand, something that would have been previously unheard of.
While it’s important to remember that a companion animal will not be helpful for all children — Autism Speaks points out that there are a variety of personal factors and the animal’s temperament that need to be taken into consideration — Iris’s story is a reminder of how powerful the bond between humans and animals can be and how healing the relationship is for children who are otherwise locked inside of themselves with little understanding how to process all the sensory information that’s coming at them.