5-year-old with autism struggles with anxiety, until she befriends a therapy cat

Story written by Susan Pi on Nov 21, 2016

After Arabella and her husband discovered their daughter was severely autistic, they spent years trying to figure out how best to help her. It was an uphill battle. Iris Grace didn’t speak or communicate. She avoided other children and refused to play with even her parents. She didn’t engage with the world, refusing to make eye contact with others. She often became anxious and upset, especially around people and in environments she didn’t know.

One day, Arabella was doodling on a piece of paper when three-year-old Iris walked up to her, seemingly fascinated by the drawing. Arabella seized on the unexpected connection and introduced her daughter to painting. But despite an intense interest in her art, Iris remained disconnected from the world.

“When you research autism,” Arabella said in an interview with Bored Panda, “there are stories that come up from time to time about the wonderful effects that animals can have on a child with Autism.”

She wanted to give it a try, but Iris didn’t respond to horses. Dogs were even worse. Iris hated being licked and quickly became overwhelmed by the rapid movements of a wagging tail. Discouraged, Arabella soon gave up the idea.

Around the same time, Arabella reluctantly agreed to pet sit her brother’s cat while he was out of town for Christmas. She worried the temporary addition to their home would cause Iris too much stress, especially since Iris had been feeling sick. Seeing Iris bond with the cat surprised her, and she renewed her search for the perfect therapy animal.

When they brought home Thula, a fluffy Maine Coon kitten, Iris immediately responded. She cradled the kitten in her arms, stroking her fur and whiskers. Since that day, they became inseparable. Despite not being a trained therapy cat, Thula intuitively knew what Iris needed, even walking over to sit on her lap whenever she became anxious. They slept in the same bed and played with the same toys. Wherever Iris went, Thula would be there too. Iris even started to speak simple phrases like “sit, cat” or “more cat.”

In an interview with CNN, Arabella recalls how much Iris hated the sensation of water against her skin. Getting her to take a bath was always difficult, but since Maine Coons loved water, Thula would happily jump into the tub instead. It didn’t take long for Iris to learn to tolerate her baths as long as Thula was in the water too.

“Thula loved all of the things that Iris found difficult,” Arabella said. “It was like heaven.”

Today, Iris has become famous for her extraordinary paintings. Her dreamy and whimsical art has been compared to Monet, and celebrities like Angelina Jolie have purchased her work. She still has trouble with social skills and speech remains difficult, but thanks to Thula, she’s come a long way from when she was first diagnosed at two. “Now it’s a different story,” Arabella writes on their website. “She plays, communicates and her sleeping is much better.”