Our cat, Emma, was not an autism therapy cat. She wasn’t even a good candidate.
But just her presence essentially saved my son’s life.
My son has high-functioning autism, so it was never in the cards for us to have a trained therapy animal. Emma was just our family pet — although she was just as important to us as any family member.
Emma: The First Cat Who Helped My Son With Autism
We adopted Emma from the Humane Society when my son, Conal, was 3 years old. This was around the same time he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Initially, Emma was timid. I suspect she was abused before she came to us.
Having to be around a young child with somewhat unpredictable behavior made things more stressful for her.
But we came up with some routines, one of which involved Conal petting the cat and putting his ear on her side to listen to her purr before he went to bed. All of this was comforting and calming for both of them.
As Conal grew up, so did Emma. They got used to each other.
Conal was gentle with her, and this special cat was quite gentle with him.
She made him laugh with her zany personality, she comforted him when he was upset, and she played with him when he was bored.
Emma lived until she was 21, and my son was 23.
We were devastated by her death. She was a valued member of the family — it was just the 3 of us before she died. We had moved 4 times over the years, including a move across the country, so she had been with us every step of the way.
Even though it’s been a year and a half since we lost Emma, I still have trouble talking about it.
Bella: Another Cat Who Helped My Son With Autism
We knew there would be no other cat as unique and amazing as Emma. But we were lonely without a little furry body around the house.
So we adopted a kitten and named her Bellatrix, Bella for short — a rather unfortunate choice of name, because she can be rather naughty at times.
She’s very different from Emma. She’s feisty rather than gentle, not to mention stubborn and crazy, and she loves to attack me randomly. But we love her to pieces.
My son is an adult. He’s never had a girlfriend or a job. And he’s depressed.
He doesn’t press his head on Bella’s side to listen to her purr. And she doesn’t sit on his lap or enjoy being cuddled. All of this frustrates him somewhat. But just her presence, her cat personality, is enough.
Just like Emma, she’s not an autism therapy cat — and, as I already stated but must reiterate, Bella wouldn’t even make a good candidate for an autism therapy cat.
But with her adorable face staring at him with her version of affection, her soft fur and feathery tail, plus her goofy antics, she keeps Conal happy.
The Science Behind Cats Helping Someone With Autism
The idea of regular cats, or any pets, serving in therapeutic roles for someone on the autism spectrum isn’t unheard of.
A 2012 study1 found that “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.”
The researchers concluded that playing with a pet “provides a child with means of practicing and understanding the events of his or her social world.”
Separately, a spring 2018 study2 published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science found that a cat “can provide an avenue of positive relationships” for an ASD child — even if “the cat was spending only an hour a day or less with the child.”
“It seems that cats in families with an ASD child often provided valuable bonding, attention and calming affection to the child,” the researchers said.
However, this newer study did note that no all cats are up to the task: “Many children seek an affectionate relationship with their cats and may benefit from the affection, but their desires are often not fulfilled.”
This underscores the importance of socializing the cat at an early age, the researchers stated.
Dr. JoAnna, Pendergrass, DVM, writing in American Veterinarian3, says, “Interestingly, some studies have suggested that cats [rather than dogs] may be preferable for some children with ASD, in part because a child may be more compatible with a cat than a dog. Little is currently known, though, about how cats benefit children with special needs.”
Things Will Get Better
We still have our fond memories of Emma.
We talk about her almost every day. The more time passes, her death will get easier for us. And Bella helps in her own way.
We’re hoping to get a dog when our living situation improves. A larger place would be nice, too.
But in the meantime, first Emma and now Bella have inspired my son. He wants to dedicate his life to helping animals, especially feral cats.
So, thank goodness for our feline friends. I think my son is a saner and gentler person because of them.
We didn’t need an “autism therapy cat” after all. We just needed Emma and Bella.
- Grandgeorge, Marine et al. “Does Pet Arrival Trigger Prosocial Behaviors in Individuals With Autism?” Aug. 1, 2012. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0041739.
- Hart, Lynette A. et al. “Affectionate Interactions of Cats With Children Having Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Frontiers in Veterinary Science 5 (March 12, 2018). https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2018.00039/full.
- Pendergrass, JoAnna, DVM. “How Cats Can Help Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder.” American Veterinarian. April 16, 2018. https://www.americanveterinarian.com/news/how-cats-can-help-children-with-autism-spectrum-disorder.
This article was written by Kathryn Copeland, a former librarian who is pursuing a master’s degree in museum studies.