I have loved animals all my life and in the past I practiced Horse Whispering and have always had pets around me. So, for me, my first thoughts were about equine therapy and a service dog. For us neither of those two were right for Iris but after looking after my brother’s cat over Christmas one year we saw something special, Iris loved that cat. After that we went on a search to find her a cat of her own and we heard of a breed called a Maine Coon that sounded perfect, confident, gentle, loving, loved water, always wanting to play and be involved in activities.
Iris and Thula were like best buddies from the start and there were moments when I could almost run around the house with excitement, like when Iris asked Thula to ‘sit cat’ at the painting table or ‘more cat’ when she wanted Thula to follow her. Before that, Iris had never made any verbal requests and those skills started to transfer to us too. She spoke more each day and they were so relaxed in each other’s company. I think part of it is there is no pressure, Thula doesn’t ask her to talk, she is just there for her and they communicate easily with body language but without that pressure Iris felt happy to try. I have learnt a lot from Thula, watching them together has allowed me to understand how to interact more easily with Iris and its always a gentle reminder each day. We even started to see cat shapes within Iris’s paintings, a beautiful sign of their bond that they share.
I believe that this is something we could see in many families, it may not always be a cat, some it will be a dog, other a rabbit, horse…but I believe animals can be an incredible addition to any family. From our experience there are certain things I would suggest, letting the child and the animal spend time together, a lot of time, do activities together, chill together, play…it’s helpful to use a harness in the early days so the animal can get used to that and a lead. It makes it safer when out and about. Travelling in the car is another useful skill so doing that on a daily basis while they are young is also a good idea. Time off is also important. Thula has many hours a day outside on her own adventures, time to be a cat on her own. I think this would be important for any animal, we must not ask too much of them and let it be their choice.
The following two excerpts are from the new book called Iris Grace which highlights this very special bond:
‘Our morning routine changed as a result of Thula’s presence. Iris, once slow to stir and difficult to get going before 9 a.m. now seemed to have springs in her feet. She woke up with a wide smile with her new friend beside her and I heard her say ‘More cat’ as she followed her to the stairs. Thula’s constant presence and gentle nature almost immediately had a remarkable effect upon Iris. I began hearing Iris giving instructions to Thula. ‘Sit, cat,’ she would say when Thula was trying to play on her iPad. She said it with such authority that the kitten obediently sat down with her striped legs neatly together. Unlike most children of Iris’s age, she didn’t maul, stroke or pick up the kitten constantly. Their relationship was based upon companionship. Thula watched with great interest as Iris played, joining in whenever she could. Iris stood at her table playing with play-dough and Thula sat beside her, mimicking Iris’s movements. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: this tiny kitten was implementing the basics of play therapy. The more I thought about it, the more I could see what a perfect companion a cat was for a child on the spectrum. They understood one another in a way that we would always struggle to. There was an undeniable bond forming between them, a powerful connection that we had been searching for all this time, and to finally see it was enchanting.’
‘My vision of taking a cat out on the bikes started like any other adventure. Planning was, of course, essential. I found a comfortable basket box that was specially designed for small dogs to be attached to the handle bars; I knew that Thula was going to grow a lot more over the next couple of years, so the bigger the better. There was an internal lead and at first I got Thula used to just sitting in the box inside the house. Then I carried her around the garden in it, and the final stage was attaching it to the bike. But she adored riding on the bike. From the very first outing she was relaxed and enjoyed seeing all the wildlife along the canal and staying close to Iris. Right away I could see this was going to be a permanent arrangement. She never tried to get out and was always keen to get in the car when she saw the bikes. From then on Thula was a biker cat, accompanying us on every bike ride and being a friend to Iris when she needed extra support.
When Iris looked like she needed help I would ride up alongside her and position Thula’s basket right up against Iris’s seat. Thula would stretch up as far as she could to reach Iris and kiss her cheek. The long whiskers tickled and got Iris’s attention, pulling her away from her worries. Iris then placed her arm round Thula’s body and we would just let them be for a while as she stroked Thula’s head, delicately running her fingers along the symmetrical black markings in between her ears. Sometimes Iris would rub the long black tufts at the tips of her ears between her thumb and forefinger while Thula stayed still, watching the natural world around her with bright wide eyes.
As we rode along the canal towpath Thula’s presence always left a trail of smiles, chatter and laughter as people saw a cat sitting so confidently with her paws over the edge of the basket, leaning forward into the wind with an eager look upon her face. Thula made them smile because she acted differently from what was expected of a cat, bringing something special to their day. I wished everyone could be as accepting and joyful in regard to differences that they encounter in their lives. Thula and Iris were sending out a strong message – that different is brilliant.’
Arabella Carter-Johnson is Iris Grace’s mother and a professional photographer. In 2008, she and her husband Peter-Jon settled in the rolling hills of Leicestershire where Arabella grew up.
Working as a freelance photographer, her work ranged from family portraits, landscapes, to film stills capturing unique images by using natural light and quiet observation. The following year she joined a well-renowned portrait studio and became their lead wedding photographer. Arabella and P-J’s daughter, Iris Grace was born in 2009 and their lives changed forever.
Arabella has documented their journey through diary entries and photographs and now tells Iris’s story in her first book.
This article was featured in Issue 47 – Motherhood – An Unconditional Love