Finding Her Hero

Iris Grace would lie in bed at night, sleeping for only an hour before waking up to replay each memory of her day, big or small, good or bad—a ritual that caused pain and restlessness for her family.

Her mother tried everything she could think of to help relax her young daughter, who is on the autism spectrum. She used music as a remedy, her favorite toys as a distraction, and horses and dogs as therapy companions.

But nothing worked—until a kitten came along.

thula and iris therapy cat for autism

Making a lasting first impression

The Maine Coon kitten lived near the family and had spent more time with humans than her own kind. She was interactive and loving toward people, and that was all Arabella needed to hear. She had been researching the breed to help her daughter, Iris, and instinctively believed that this kitten would be the right fit.

At first glance, the kitten looked comical, with ginormous ears, bright eyes, and an inquisitive look. “She was very outgoing, and her interest in me seemed very human,” says Arabella. “I was like, ‘This is perfect.’”

Knowing her purpose

On the first ride home with the kitten, Iris touched the soft fur inside the pet carrier. She giggled—an immediate sign that she was relaxed, a feeling that hasn’t always come easy. When the family got home, the cat tucked herself close to Iris as if she already knew her purpose as a therapy cat.

They named her Thula after Iris’ favorite African lullaby, “Thula Baba.” The name means peace and tranquility, two states of being Arabella hoped the kitten would bring Iris.

“You know when you meet someone, and you don’t know why but it just clicks?” Arabella asks. “You haven’t really talked to them that much but you just know you like them. I think it’s a bit like that. Thula and Iris just clicked.”

“Hi, cat,” an otherwise silent Iris would say.

Since that first meeting in 2014, Thula became something more than a therapy cat: a best friend, a partner in life, the key to Iris’ confidence and courage. From bedtime to bath time, and bike rides to boat rides, Thula has stayed beside her, silently encouraging Iris to unleash her potential.

Helping Iris relax at bedtime

Thula made an immediate impact on Iris’ bedtime ritual. One typical night, Iris’ eyes slowly closed, opening again as her mind eternally raced. She sobbed, pushing away everything but one book and her mother.

Downstairs, Thula heard something that even Arabella’s husband, Peter, couldn’t detect: Iris’ cries. The cat raced up the stairs and in seconds, sat beside Iris and began to groom herself. Iris’ cries stopped—and laughter began.

Iris put her book down and relaxed with Thula. Arabella quietly slipped out of the room, waiting for the inevitable cries to begin again. They never came.

thula and iris sleeping with autism

Thula, with luxuriously soft fur and a purr with “magical powers,” had given Iris the relief to finally sleep.

“This magical kitten was changing our lives, and this was just the beginning,” Arabella states in her book, Iris Grace.

Helping Iris accept bath time

Thula was equally heroic at bath time, which was just as difficult as bedtime for Iris and her family. Arabella had seen Thula help Iris go to sleep, so Mom decided to encourage Thula to join Iris in the bathroom.

Iris didn’t like the water touching her body, making it difficult for Arabella to keep her in the tub. She cried and cried while Thula came in and out of the room. Arabella’s plan seemed to be falling apart.

“I kept grabbing things to distract Iris with, and the more toys she had, the more she was just wanting to get out,” says Arabella.

Then, Thula strolled in again without being called, hopped up on the tub, and confidently gave Iris a piece of jewelry they had played with earlier. Surprised by the cat near the water, Iris laughed.

“As soon as you get Iris laughing, you know everything’s going to be all right,” says Arabella. And just a few moments later, Thula actually joined Iris in the water—doing whatever it took to completely soothe her friend.

Iris had changed her mind about the hot water and accepted bath time—because now it was with Thula. And once Iris really started to love bath time, she even became confident to go swimming.

Taking the lead

It wasn’t only Iris that Thula helped—she taught the whole family as well. Thula would leave the room and come back with something in her mouth to comfort Iris when she was upset. She’d sit beside Iris during her sensory activities instead of opposite her, pick up something the same way as Iris, and effectively communicate with Iris without words.

“This cat was actively trying to help and she really did want to,” says Johnson. “She was really seeking methods to help her friend.”

Arabella began to take a step back to see how Thula and Iris would interact together. She believes that Thula would do things that Arabella wouldn’t have ever thought to do because Thula had the ability to read Iris’ body language better than she did. And even when Iris cried, it never bothered Thula.

“For us as parents, having a child cry is quite distressing,” Arabella says. “But for Thula, it’s like, ‘You can cry and cry, and I’ll be here no matter what.’”

thula and iris therapy companion for autism

Thula relaxed Iris’ anxieties at bedtime. She took away Iris’ fear of water. She showed Iris’ parents how to help their child.

“Those two taught me how to really enjoy life and experience it,” Arabella says. “It’s a different way of being. It’s living in the present moment instead of always thinking, ‘What’s next?’”

thula and iris sensory activity for autism

Continuing the adventure

Now 6 years old, Iris is confident and happy to ride her bike and swim if Thula is there. Iris even sleeps soundly and takes baths willingly when Thula’s not.

Thula has also helped Iris interact with other children. Before, Iris tolerated the children in the activity club Arabella set up in their home. But now, she’s more interested and excited than ever.

“She’s come so far since the beginning, and it really has a lot to do with Thula’s involvement,” Arabella says.

Iris’ parents are now amplifying the educational element in their home by converting their garage into a space where they can teach workshops for a project called “Kids Must Move,” which already has a waiting list. The project will focus on learning outside using movements and the child’s interests. And of course, Thula will be there.

Thula already interacts with other children—she’s there for them to stroke, pet, and talk to. She even gives some kids the confidence to read. “They feel like they can read a book to her without being judged,” Arabella says.

As Iris has become more independent with Thula’s help, Thula has been finding other family members who may need her. “She’s got this real ability to see where she’s needed and what to do, and you don’t have to tell her either,” says Arabella.

There are also times when Thula and Iris remain inseparable, always looking out for each other and continuing their adventures together.

Arabella recalls a walk with Thula and Iris, during which a pack of big dogs approached. Iris comforted Thula, telling her that it was OK.

“Thula cat, come here. It’s OK. It’s OK.”

Now, because of Thula, Iris has found her confidence.

thula and iris activities outside with autism

Carpet for all heroes. Because every dynamic duo needs a pet-friendly floor.

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