Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them”.(1) This usually becomes apparent at 2-3 years of age, writes Dr Amanda Powell.
Our feline friend is often overlooked as a therapy animal with dogs usually at the forefront. People with autism often prefer a quieter animal and their loyal, solitude nature can make the perfect companion.
Research and anecdotal evidence have shown that cats can open a door to the outside world for both children and adults with this disorder.
Caring for an animal teaches responsibility, emotional understanding and encourages social behaviour. Research showed that “in individuals with autism, pet arrival in the family setting may bring about changes in specific aspects of their socio-emotional development.
It suggests the improvement of some prosocial behavious in such individuals under certain circumstances.”(2). Pets may also lead to families spending more time together and in children with autism the pet may serve as a link between them and the rest of the family.
Personal stories provide testament to the special bond between cats and children with autism.
One of the most powerful stories is of 7 year old Iris Grace and her therapy cat. The author, Thuy Linh, describes the strong bond between the two and how her cat helps to calm her and encourage social interaction. It also goes on to say, that Iris had previously tried dog therapy but found the hyperactivity of the dog too much.
The Heritage Cat Shelter in Arizona, USA has taken this further and has started the ‘Purrs for Autism’ scheme. Children come once a week to pet and cuddle the cats and learn how to look after them.
There isn’t any research to date on the breed of cat that are best for therapy but children will often have an affiliation for one particular cat (perhaps personality traits that they can recognise themselves in) as detailed in an article from Medical Daily.
Dr Amanda Powell has no conflict of interest pertaining to any companies or products mentioned in the article.
Dr Amanda Powell BM DRCOG MRCGP
Having qualified from Southampton University Medical School in 2006, Dr Powell subsequently completed her General Practice training in Winchester, Hampshire.
During various roles in the community she undertook two postgraduate diplomas focusing on Women’s Health (DFRSH and DRCOG). In 2012 she left her clinical GP role to move abroad and focus on raising her young family.
Living in Kuwait and now The Sultanate of Oman has exposed her to a diverse cultural approach to healthcare and provided an opportunity to pursue her non-clinical GP roles.
Dr Powell now works as a freelance medical writer and is soon to train as a health coach. She looks forward to returning to NHS General Practice building on experience gained in her non-clinical roles abroad.
Catskingdom’s Jan Littlemore has found a novel way of helping those on the autistic spectrum feel calmer, in my view, with ‘furry cats feelers’. The toys are made out of hair from the cats she grooms. Find out more.