Little Girl With Autism Takes Comfort In Her Best Friend, A Cat

They do everything together.

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 Carter-Johnson

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 realized that I just hadn't found the right animal yet."

Arabella was right. The search for the right cat continued in January 2014, and the family found their feline match soon after: a Maine Coon kitten they named Thula. The kitten was just the right temperament and personality for sensitive Iris. When the two 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.

Arabella Carter-Johnson

Since Thula came into Iris' life, Arabella says that Iris' paintings have indeed altered a bit. "We do see cat faces, imagery of cats in her paintings now, it is subtle but noticeable."

Below is one of many dreamy, impressionistic pieces painted by Iris.

Arabella Carter-Johnson

When the two aren't painting, Thula and Iris enjoy spending time together playing on the family iPad ...

Arabella Carter-Johnson

... relaxing during car rides ...

Arabella Carter-Johnson

... and even taking the occasional bubble bath!

Arabella Carter-Johnson

But Thula is more than just a playmate. The cat is a source of stability and comfort for Iris during some of her darker moods. An excerpt from Arabella's blog describes one touching instance where Iris, a bit gloomy about practicing her speech, found comfort in Thula's presence:

Thula brings a square piece of bubble wrap in her mouth and jumps up onto the sofa beside Iris and drops it in her lap. Iris who was withdrawn and looking exhausted smiles and says "Hi Cat." She picks the bubble wrap up and starts playing and then offers it to Thula. Unusually Thula doesn't want it throwing or dangling, she nudges it back to Iris and lies down and purrs loudly. I watch her from the doorway, amazed at what I am seeing, I was just hunting for something to take Iris's mind off running through her words, a distraction from her current goal. How is Thula doing this? I understand she must be reading Iris's body language but to have the intelligence to find a sensory toy that isn't for her, but for Iris to play with to pull her out of this darker space, is incredible.

It is clear that the relationship between Thula and Iris is based on mutual respect and empathy. Says Arabella, "Unlike most children of Iris's age, she doesn't maul, stroke or pick up the kitten constantly. Their relationship is based upon companionship. If Iris wakes during the night, Thula is there to settle her. It's as though she instinctively knows what to do."

Though Thula and Iris have received considerable internet notoriety, Arabella is adamant that she doesn't want Iris' life to be affected by the newfound popularity. "For Iris nothing has changed, we are working very hard to keep it that way," she says. "There have been so many requests from news networks, film and chat shows to come and report on Iris, her paintings, and now Thula ... but I know how much it would upset Iris, and she is making such progress at the moment with her speech, so we just want to keep things as they are."

Arabella Carter-Johnson

It's pretty clear that, regardless of what new skills Iris may acquire (she has recently taken interest in the violin), Thula will be there as a comforting presence, offering the silent understanding that Iris needs.

Here's to the dynamic duo's future adventures - there will surely be many.

Arabella Carter-Johnson

You can read more about Iris' life on her website and Facebook page, and can view and purchase prints of her unique artwork here.

See the latest photos of Thula and Iris on Instagram.