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Updated: Apr 20, 2020

In the years since I published this blog, sadly my cat, Mippy died. Life with my new cat has confirmed my belief that Mippy was in fact autistic, so it seemly timely to republish it.

Over the many years I have worked with children with ASD and their families, it has always been a struggle for professionals and families to understand these children. For me, and many of the people I work with, it becomes easier when I use the analogy of my cat. When I look at the ASD triad of impairments, it could describe her.

The Autistic Triad of Impairments 

Impairment of language and communication

Impairment of flexibility of thought and imagination

Impairment of social and emotional behaviour

Mippy is a talkative cat. She endlessly issues demands, comments and greetings, I think. But the truth is I don’t understand what she is saying and she doesn’t understand what I am saying. There is an impairment of language and communication. When Mippy gets frustrated by my lack of understanding, she bites or scratches. Like so many with ASD, her frustration becomes physical. In turn, I find myself saying ‘use your words’ then realise that she is, but the communication still isn’t working.

Of course, Mippy’s communication is all on her terms to express her needs. She is not interested in my day, only her dinner.  There is no empathy or appreciation of another’s point of view. She will respond to emotions, but does not understand them or relate them to her own feelings.

Like so many with ASD, my cat is affectionate, but it is always on her terms. She likes to sit on my lap, but only to her convenience which is almost always timed to match my inconvenience. If I get too close, when she does not want contact or make the wrong sort of contact, which could have been the right sort of contact yesterday, then she storms off or hits out.

Her understanding of personal space is poor. She will regularly stand so close behind me that I fall over her. This also shows a lack of understanding of danger and poor ability to assess risk, as this regularly leads to one, other or both of us being hurt.

Her unpredictable response to physical contact is shared with many with ASD as part of their hyper or hypo sensitivity. In Mippy’s case there are particular sounds she hates. Despite living next to a busy railway line, Mippy has a complete phobia of the steam trains, which come through once a week. This leads to meltdown- fur on end, whimpering and snarling.  Similarly some fireworks are fine, others even at a greater distance see her cowering and complaining under my bed.

Mippy has no understanding of appropriate social behaviour and does not care. She cannot understand that stopping in the middle of a room to wash her bottom is not acceptable in polite society. That leaving half eaten small creatures round the house is inappropriate behaviour. While I accept that she is a hunter, she cannot understand that I do not share this interest. She continues to bring me live mice to hunt or dead ones to share. The inflexibility of her thought is evident. There are definitely days when I would prefer she talked endlessly about Thomas the Tank Engine or computer programming!

Mippy is bound by routine. Her dinner is to be served at 4.30pm. She starts complaining and reminding us of her need to be fed between 3.00 and 3.30pm becoming louder and louder till dinner is served. The fact she has dried food available at all times, so is not hungry is irrelevant. The fact, nowadays, it is very unusual for anyone to be in at 4.30 is irrelevant as is the fact, that as far as I know, she doesn’t have a watch. That is her routine and so it is all important. Similarly she has water available at all times in a nice bowl, bought for the purpose from the pet shop, but she prefers to drink from an old soap dish. Why? Like, the ASD child I taught who had to lick all silver cars, Mippy’s routine is unhygienic, inconvenient and unexplainable, but all important to her. And without it, she becomes highly anxious.

I trust that no-one is offended either by my anthropomorphism of my cat or the reverse anthropomorphism of people with ASD. My sons tell me that I have missed many of Mippy’s personality traits and I will, equally, not have considered many of those exhibited by people with ASD. In fact almost every person with ASD exhibits a different set of autistic traits, in a different balance and combination.   Even so many people are more comfortable with, and understanding of cats, than those with ASD, so this analogy can become a useful strategy to build understanding of autism and the needs of those with autism.

Moreover, I love my cat. She does not have a formal diagnosis of ASD, and even if there were a vet who would or could make such a diagnosis, it would add little to my understanding of her. Diagnosis is useful to add to our understanding of how to work with children with ASD, even occasionally to access additional funding, but it does not change who they are. The key to working with autistic children (and cats) is to understand who they are, appreciate their strengths and minimise their difficulties.

Posted in: Special needs

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