A girl and her indispensable cat

Guest post by Dayna Berghan-Whyman: In our little family there are the three of us: myself, my husband, and our daughter Freya. But Freya would tell you there are four. The fourth person is our cat Tasha.

Ever since Freya was little she has liked cats. As she learned to talk, she substituted the word cat into songs, such as "twinkle, twinkle, little cat". A few times as a toddler, she left the house in search of cats. Gave us heart attacks!

At three, Freya was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism at the higher functioning end of the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) range. 

Later, genetic testing revealed that Freya has Alfi's Syndrome - a portion of her DNA's 9th chromosome being missing. The syndrome, which reportedly happens in one in 50,000 births, is the cause of Freya's ASD.

When we finally saved enough for a house deposit, alongside the usual factors in choosing a home, we were shopping for somewhere we could have a cat. We had decided as renters not to have a cat, but Freya's needs were getting considerable, and her love of cats was growing, so there was no question that we were going to get a cat.

But what type? We researched breeds carefully. Also, Freya and I had got to know a range of cats through volunteering to feed and care for friends' cats when they were away on holiday. We settled on a big cat - something laid back that could handle a family as well as not go nuts if left alone for a few hours a day. We settled on a Norwegian Forest Cat and have had two of them in our lives - Ronnie, a lovely black and white tom (now passed away), and currently Tasha, a beautiful tabby girl.

Since then, we have watched Freya grow and develop - by gaining confidence with a cat at her side. Like an Autism Service Dog, our cat is not just a family pet, but an important learning tool, sensory guide and companion.

If you want Freya to be interested in something, slap a cat sticker on it, or make the subject about cats; this will overcome her distrust of the unfamiliar, and when she's comfortable, then she'll actually do an activity. Freya's reading and writing recovery stories are all about Tasha and their adventures together.

We have cat stickers plastered on school books, writing implements and eating utensils, used as rewards, and on her earmuffs and orthotic leg braces. The Sanrio Company - licence holder of the Hello Kitty brand - makes a pretty penny out of this little family. 

Learning about ASD was a steep curve for the whole family. But we found Kathy Hoopmann's book All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome a lighthearted and non-threatening way of explaining things simply. (Hoopmann has done a series of them - I know there's an All Dogs have ADHD.)

I have learnt so much about cats from all the books we've got for Freya - from the cats created by Lynley Dodd, to photo books featuring cats, to the how-to-care and scientific guides. Ask me how cat eye colour or coat patterns are expressed genetically, and if I can't answer immediately, I'm sure Freya will.  Remember, she's only 6!

There's no end to the number of cats on the internet or to the applications available that feature cats. It's instant entertainment, but also instant education. Quaky Cat, developed from the Christchurch earthquakes, helped Freya cope with the Seddon earthquake that we felt here in Wellington last year.

Our cat is a teaching tool. The best example of this is hygiene and grooming. The cat gets her coat brushed, Freya gets her hair brushed. The cat takes a bath, Freya has a bath each night. The cat goes off to the toilet, and then it's Freya's turn to do the same.

Something that's hard for Freya is to read the facial expressions of others. So for her, communication with cats is relaxing - they don't emote like humans. Cats' non-verbal modes of communication are easier for Freya to relate to, such as purring, hissing and looking away to show you're not a threat.

We used to clip Ronnie's claws. But after the only time he scratched Freya - because "I put my finger in his cat hole" - we thought it was time he had the full use of them to clearly designate his personal space. Nothing teaches a child to be gentle more quickly than a pet that's being handled too roughly.

Here's an important lesson that our cat Ronnie taught Freya (who can become frustrated and anxious if a regular routine is broken). Ronnie passed away suddenly last year. We arranged his body, with his favourite blanket and toy, in a box and closed his eyes - to make it look like he was sleeping. We thought this would ease the pain of the loss. We took him to the local veterinarian and arranged the cremation.

However, for weeks afterward Freya begged to go back to the veterinarian to collect Ronnie - after all, he was taking a nap; surely we could pick him up by now?

So after we collected his remains, I made a wrap for the box woven from all the fur we'd collected each time we brushed him. Now, he resides with the rest of the framed family photos; Freya will often take him down, talk to him and play with him - almost as if he can simultaneously exist in the two states of being here and not being here. The hard lesson to learn was that change is unpredictable and our loved ones will eventually pass away. It's a shame that we had such a short time with Ronnie, but he was, and continues to be, a mechanism for coping with loss and grief.

Ronnie helped Freya with the momentous changes of living in a new house and starting school. To get Freya keen to move to the new house, we said we were buying a cat. And we did, within two weeks of moving in. I dropped flyers with our neighbours telling them who we were and explaining that Freya is sound sensitive because of her ASD and that she would be wearing earmuffs when out walking, and occasionally we might have a cat out and about with us. The neighbours responded kindly; the instant community that sprang up around us when we declared our unashamed cat-fancier status was amazing.

Freya had done the school visits and knew where she was going, but to help ease the transition she and I took Ronnie in a cat harness to school with us for the first week. The kids were delighted, the staff were surprised, but Freya pointed out that the signs up around the school clearly stated no dogs, but not no cats. We miss Ronnie very much!

After Ronnie died, we were in grief but recognised Freya's need for another cat to join our family. Some months later we got Tasha from the same breeder. Freya had to learn again to treat a kitten differently from the large cat she was used to playing with. She also had to learn that Tasha had different ideas about what a good game was - whereas Ronnie liked tea parties and bathtime, Tasha prefers chase-the-dangly-thing games and sitting on your lap.

The outdoors is filled with unpredictable noises, and wind. Freya can become overstimulated and it's a frightening place for her. So to encourage her to be outside, she has her earmuffs and we use the cat. Tasha is not fond of the cat harness, so she has a Pet Tent. By using the cat as a tool to motivate Freya outside - "look Freya, Tasha is outside" - Freya can always see Tasha, and Tasha gets to enjoy some fresh air. It's win-win.

Freya needs complex tasks broken down into little tasks. But every chance she gets, she tries to enlist the cat:

Me: "Freya, pick up these books and put them back on the shelf, please."

Freya: "Can Tasha help?"

Me: "No darling, she doesn't have opposable thumbs."

Freya: "Oh, OK. I'll go and get her some forks to use."

Social interaction with Freya can be difficult. For a start, when she's listening she doesn't look at your face; instead, she looks up and to the right - which can disconcert anyone who's not used to it. Also, Freya will respond to questions with rote sentences. Sometimes these phrases work and people think she has understood what's been asked of her; other times her responses can be non sequitur and hilarious. However, the topic of cats greases the social wheels: if you've got a cat, Freya wants to hear all about it. In our experience, people are only too happy to talk about their pets and this makes for an easier interaction between them and Freya.

The whole "one rule for us, another for the cat" doesn't enter into Freya's view of the world. At Christmas, Freya thought it unfair that she had an Advent calendar, but Tasha didn't. So we made Tasha her very own Cat Advent calendar that Freya "helped" her open each day."

Ronnie was Freya's first cat. Here he takes part in Freya's tea party.

Some links:

Autism New Zealand

Alfi's Syndrome

Pop up Pet Tent

Autism service dogs

Follow Dayna Berghan-Whyman for Freya and Tasha fun on Twitter at @AnyadNZ.

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