Five-year-old Iris Grace Halmshaw of Market Harborough, Leicestershire was diagnosed with autism in December 2011. Since that time, her parents, Arabella Carter-Johnson and Peter-Jon Halmshaw, have been navigating the process of helping their daughter flourish and live her life to the fullest. One of the more remarkable discoveries in this journey has been the blossoming friendship between Iris and her cat, Thula.
Arabella tells The Dodo that she and her husband had been considering a therapy animal for Iris after reading several articles about animals having positive effects on children with autism. After an unsuccessful look at Equine Therapy (Iris had little interest in horses), the family thought about a therapy dog. However, Iris and the prospective therapy dog didn’t really click, as Iris didn’t enjoy being licked and found the dog’s hyperactivity to be upsetting. The family even spoke to various cat rehoming centers and tried out a therapy cat instead, but Iris didn’t have much interest in any of the cats.
Arabella says that “By this point I was getting sick of the idea, I couldn’t carry on with trying out different animals, it wasn’t fair on anyone and not helping Iris at all.”
During Christmas of 2013, however, everything changed. A family member’s Siberian cat was in need of temporary boarding while her owners were abroad, and Arabella and Peter-Jon opened their home to the furry guest. Arabella noticed that Iris and the cat immediately connected with one another. “It was then I realised that I just hadn’t found the right animal yet.”
Arabella was right. Maine Coon kitten Thula was just the right temperament and personality for sensitive Iris. When the two finally met, it was love at first sight. “Thula just settled right in and it was as if she was always here at home with us.”
Thula has since become Iris’ close companion, serving as a wonderful partner for snuggling and naps. The fluffy feline is also Iris’ “faithful assistant” when it comes to painting, one of the five-year-old’s favorite pastimes. Iris’ parents initially encouraged her to paint as a way of assisting with her “speech therapy, joint attention and turn taking.” However, Arabella and Peter-Jon soon discovered that Iris had an amazing natural ability for painting, as well as an “incredible” two-hour concentration span when she worked.