Remember when we wrote about Iris Grace, the incredibly talented 5-year-old girl with autism who paints beautiful pictures? It turns out that she has a behind-the-scenes helper who’s also worthy of praise – that’s Thula, her therapeutic cat.

Thula, who is almost 1 year old, is a Maine Coon. This breed is known as the intelligent and gentle giant of the cat world and though she’s still small and young, Thula does not disappoint. Her gentle and compassionate character is especially important for Iris, a young girl growing up with autism; “Thula has lowered [Iris’] daily anxieties in life and keeps Iris calm,” Iris’ mother, Arabella Carter-Johnson, told Bored Panda, “but equally has the effect of encouraging her to be more social. She will talk more to Thula, saying little phrases like ‘sit cat.’

Carter-Johnson, had almost given up on the search for a therapeutic animal companion for her daughter. When Iris happened to connect with a Siberian cat that her family would up cat-sitting for Christmas, however, she realized that she “just hadn’t found the right animal yet.” For more info about Thula and Iris, read more of Carter-Johnson’s interview with Bored Panda!

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What ever activity we are doing Thula is there and wants to help and be involved,” Arabella Carter-Johnson told Bored Panda. “Waterplay, playdoh, painting, bike rides, iPad, puzzles, marble run, drawing… she offers Iris her companionship, friendship and supports me in encouraging Iris to interact.

Thula has lowered [Iris’] daily anxieties in life and keeps Iris calm, but equally has the effect of encouraging her to be more social. She will talk more to Thula, saying little phrases like ‘sit cat.’

Iris has been through a stage over the last year of hating baths and having her hair washed. Thula has been getting in the bath tub with Iris and even letting me shampoo her as well to help Iris.

Iris is more active first thing in the morning now. Before Thula, it was always hard to get the day going. She is easier to get engaged in activities and there have been changes out on our bike rides.

It wasn’t advised to get a therapy animal, but when you research autism, there are stories that come up from time to time about the wonderful effects that animals can have on a child with Autism.

We took Iris to Equine therapy but she didn’t seem very interested in horses at that time. Then I began to think about a therapy dog.

Iris and the dog didn’t get along – Iris hated being licked and the tail wagging, the hyperactivity of the dog would upset her. So, for a while I gave up on the idea.

Then I thought about a therapy cat after reading more stories about how they have helped children with Autism… but again, no interest from Iris and the cat didn’t seem to like her either.

By this point I was getting sick of the idea. I couldn’t carry on with trialling out different animals, it wasn’t fair on any one and not helping Iris at all.

Then my brother’s girlfriend needed a place for their cat over the Christmas holidays and we offered to look after her while they were abroad. She was a beautiful Siberian and Iris connected immediately with her.

It was then I realized that I just hadn’t found the right animal yet. So, it took us a long time and a lot of trial and error trying out different options but we got there in the end.

Thula isn’t a trained service/therapy cat but I have done certain things – I got her used to wearing a harness when she was a kitten and riding in the car and on the bike. The rest she does on her own.

The harness has a very important purpose. Thula comes out on the bikes with us and there is an internal lead in the basket and I hook that onto her harness. She doesn’t normally want to jump out but it’s a safety measure just in case something frightens her, like traffic. She will also walk on a lead and the harness is more comfortable for her than a collar for that, and safer.

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