A res­cue cat saved my autis­tic son

Louise Booth felt overwhelmed try­ing to cope with her autis­tic son. He­was with­drawn and an­gry; she was des­per­ate. But it was not pro­fes­sional help that turned things around for the fam­ily. It wa sa res­cue cat called Billy

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Louise Booth be­gan to re­alise that there was some­thing wrong with her son Fraser when he was just a few hours old. “Ev­ery­body knows new ba­bies cry, but Fraser wasn’t cry­ing, he was scream­ing,” she re­mem­bers. A mid­wife at the hospi­tal at­tempted to re­as­sure her. “You just need to cud­dle him more,” she said.

But it didn’t work. Over the fol­low­ing months Louise had more rea­son for con­cern. Fraser didn’t make eye con­tact with her or her hus­band, Chris. He didn’t smile; he didn’t like to be touched or held. He screamed if his cot wasn’t pre­cisely the way he wanted it. Above it, she had fixed a wind-up mo­bile with mu­sic and baby rab­bits to help him sleep. It didn’t work. “I phoned my mum and said, ‘He hates the mo­bile’. She said, ‘Don’t be silly Louise. He’s a baby. How can he hate the mo­bile?’”

Louise, 40, who grew up in Rom­ford in Es­sex, Eng­land, met Chris, 44, an elec­tri­cian, when she was 21 and they mar­ried two years later. She joined a le­gal pub­lish­ing com­pany and worked her way up through the ranks to be­come a com­puter trainer. She loved work and was in­dif­fer­ent to the prospect of chil­dren. In the end, it was Chris who said he wanted a child.

Fraser was born af­ter 10 years of mar­riage. At first, Louise took Fraser’s de­mands in her stride – af­ter all, she was known as a prob­lem solver. But her ef­forts were, al­most with­out ex­cep­tion, re­jected. Fraser arched his back and flailed when she tried to go out with him in the buggy; he kicked if she tried to change him; and screamed if she put him in a car seat. “I threw ev­ery­thing at this and I was just no good at it. Fraser was an­gry with me all the time and I was a fail­ure.”

To make mat­ters worse, when Fraser was six weeks old, they’d moved from a hous­ing es­tate in An­dover to an iso­lated cot­tage on the Bal­moral es­tate, Queen El­iz­a­beth’s Scot­tish home, in the re­mote High­lands, af­ter Chris got a job as the es­tate elec­tri­cian. Just weeks

be­fore, Louise had been com­mut­ing to Lon­don, ex­chang­ing ideas with col­leagues. Now there was noth­ing but trees and ram­bling lanes and a baby who had no idea who she was. “It was so silent. All you could hear was his cry­ing,” she says. It be­came hard for her to go any­where. “I hate Fraser and Fraser hates me,” she told her mum on the phone.

In Au­gust 2009, when Fraser was 18 months old, the cou­ple took him to be eval­u­ated at a specialist chil­dren’s cen­tre in Aberdeen. Fraser had with him a strip of plas­tic that he’d formed a fer­vent at­tach­ment to.

At the chil­dren’s cen­tre, it was noted that he pushed away test ma­te­ri­als he was of­fered. Given a toy car to play with, he turned it upside

At 18 months old Fraser would say only one word, “wah”, at home but he had 25 ways of scream­ing

down and spun its wheels. As for his speech, Fraser could say 25 words, but at home he usu­ally said just one word that sounded like “Wah”. “He had 25 forms of scream­ing,” says Louise. The tests re­vealed that Fraser’s cog­ni­tive and be­havioural dif­fi­cul­ties were “on the autis­tic spec­trum”.

He was also di­ag­nosed with hy­po­to­nia – a mus­cle tone con­di­tion that made him limp and floppy. “Fraser will never at­tend a main­stream school,” one of the con­sul­tants said. Over the next 18 months, Fraser de­vel­oped more aver­sions: the post­man, cap­puc­cino ma­chines and fans. Faced with the prospect of a bath or see­ing a stranger, Fraser ex­pe­ri­enced full-blown panic: sweat­ing, flap­ping his hands and feet, bit­ing his fin­gers.

The Booths couldn’t take him into a su­per­mar­ket, so Louise had to do the shop­ping while Chris waited with him in the car. At nurs­ery, Fraser had dif­fi­culty mix­ing with other chil­dren, and would of­ten iso­late

him­self. He treated Louise like a piece of fur­ni­ture. He never said, “I love you, Mum,” or gave Louise a hug.

For Louise and Chris, the cru­cial event that changed their lives as par­ents oc­curred not in a con­sult­ing room or clinic, but in a res­cue cen­tre run by the char­ity Cats Pro­tec­tion at Aboyne, about 30km east of Bal­moral. In early sum­mer, 2011, Fraser met Billy. Fraser was three and highly un­pre­dictable; the cat was 12 months old and a tiny bun­dle of bones and fur. One of a lit­ter of four, he was left for dead af­ter his own­ers took flight from their coun­cil house.

The cat’s ef­fect on Fraser was dra­matic. “It was as if you saw his whole body re­lax,” re­mem­bers Louise. “You could al­most see the ten­sion ease from his face.”

When Fraser Met Billy is Louise’s chron­i­cle of what hap­pened next: How Billy helped Fraser calm down when he was anx­ious and en­cour­aged him to walk and de­velop. This re­cently pub­lished book, in­ten­tion­ally or not, is also an ac­cu­rate ac­count of the shock of mother­hood (height­ened when you have a dif­fi­cult baby). There are also in­sights into life on the royal es­tate.

But the book is also a puzzle. Are all cats so tuned into autism? Is Billy a one-off, an ex­tra­or­di­nary cat, or is this an ex­am­ple of the power of re­la­tion­ships be­tween chil­dren and their pets?

I meet the Booths – Chris, Louise, Fraser and his three-year-old sis­ter, Pippa – at their lat­est home, a three­bed­room, end-of-ter­race house on the Bal­moral es­tate. It’s still re­mote: a 25km round trip to buy some milk. High­land cat­tle tug at grass and the sky is like chilled sea. But it’s a much hap­pier place than the cot­tage they moved to in 2008.

When Fraser ap­pears, it’s clear he’s quite changed from the lit­tle boy Louise de­scribes in her book. Nearly six now, he doesn’t al­ways look at you when he talks, and re­quires prompt­ing from his mother to an­swer a ques­tion, but he is lively and en­gag­ing and doesn’t get ag­i­tated, as he would have a cou­ple of years ago, when a stranger ap­pears in his home.

“Can I say some­thing?” Fraser asks his mother in an ex­cited tone. “I want to know what [make] her wash­ing ma­chine is.” Fraser is ob­sessed with wash­ing ma­chines. He can spell all the brands: “Zanussi, Elec­trolux, you name it,” says Louise. He stud­ies them in a cat­a­logue be­fore he goes to sleep. And watches clips of spin cy­cles on YouTube. “Some­times you hear all this Ja­panese or Ger­man and he’s watch­ing a clip of a wash­ing ma­chine that some­one’s filmed in Ja­pan or Ger­many,” says Louise. Rather than get­ting stars for good be­hav­iour at school, Fraser gets lam­i­nated pic­tures of wash­ing ma­chines.

He is still prone to out­bursts and can’t go into shops or cafés be­cause of the noise and lights. His bed­room is un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally bare as he likes or­der and rarely plays with toys.

He re­peats the same ques­tion up to two dozen times a day and had his last big melt­down just be­fore Christ­mas. “He gets very up­set about Christ­mas be­cause he doesn’t get it,” Louise ex­plains.

“He un­der­stands his birth­day – it’s a num­ber and you are one year older – but Christ­mas isn’t a process for him. To him it’s some ran­dom baby’s birth­day.” Louise and Chris, like many par­ents of autis­tic chil­dren, don’t have a so­cial life, and haven’t been on a fam­ily hol­i­day, other than to their par­ents’ places, since 2006.

But Fraser is flour­ish­ing. He’s started at the lo­cal main­stream school, which is small and car­ing, with only 12 pupils (the old­est is 10).

Fraser’s read­ing is more ad­vanced than many fiveyear-old’s be­cause he quickly grasped the rules of phon­ics. He has an as­ton­ishly good mem­ory for makes of cars and num­ber plates.

“He can re­mem­ber a good pro­por­tion of the jour­ney down to my mum’s in Es­sex, which is quite amaz­ing be­cause it’s 600 miles [966km] in the car.

“He’ll sud­denly say, ‘Soon we’ll be com­ing up to the wind­mills’ – a wind farm in Cum­bria – or, ‘In a while we’ll see McDon­ald’s.’”

Louise puts much of this down to the cat.

“Be­fore Billy, Fraser hardly made any progress. Since Billy, he’s gone great guns.”

She shows me the spot on the stairs where Billy would sit en­cour­ag­ing Fraser. Stairs had been a long-run­ning prob­lem for Fraser and he would ei­ther crawl his way up to his bed­room or was car­ried up by Louise.

“Billy would sit on the halfland­ing over­look­ing the steps be­low and Fraser would slowly walk up to meet him. Once he got there he’d just lie with Billy on the land­ing.

I didn’t no­tice at first. It was only when I saw mounds of cat hair that I started to watch them and re­alised what was go­ing on.”

This is sur­pris­ing, be­cause when it comes to an­i­mals and autis­tic chil­dren, it’s dogs that stand out. In 2010, re­searchers from the Univer­sity of Mon­treal found spe­cially trained dogs had a re­mark­able calm­ing ef­fect on autis­tic chil­dren.

The char­ity Dogs for the Dis­abled of­fers spe­cially trained autism as­sis­tance dogs for chil­dren aged be­tween three and 10, and also runs work­shops where fam­i­lies learn how to train their own pet to do such things as rest a head on a wor­ried child’s lap or lie at the end of a bed to help them sleep.

Co­in­ci­den­tally, this is ex­actly the be­hav­iour shown by Billy, nei­ther trained nor a dog. But Billy seems to have found a short cut into Fraser’s

mind. The cat has fig­ured out what it’s like to be Fraser.

“Billy seems to read Fraser’s moods and seems to know when he’s happy and when he’s sad. When Fraser is not feel­ing great, Billy is there for him,” says Louise.

Dr John Brad­shaw, the an­thro­zo­ol­o­gist and au­thor of

Cat Sense: the Fe­line Enigma Re­vealed, isn’t sur­prised. He be­lieves that, for all the un­bridge­able dis­tance be­tween an­i­mals and hu­mans, cats may be sur­pris­ingly com­pat­i­ble with autis­tic chil­dren.

“Cats could find an autis­tic child’s un­pre­dictable be­hav­iour OK,” he says. “Cats love you, but don’t care if you’re ig­nor­ing them. Whereas dogs love you and they do care; they have to be very care­fully man­aged when they are com­pan­ions for chil­dren with slightly ab­nor­mal be­hav­iour.”

The mu­tual emo­tional ret­i­cence, he sug­gests, could suit both par­ties. “Cats don’t like re­la­tion­ships that go too fast,” he ex­plains, Too many strokes and coos, too much hold­ing, can un­nerve them. And autis­tic chil­dren are of­ten quite hes­i­tant in all their re­la­tion­ships, whether with people or an­i­mals.

For Fraser, a dog was out of the ques­tion. Not only is he al­ler­gic to them, but there was also the prob­lem of bark­ing. “A dog will bark sud­denly and Fraser didn’t like any­thing sud­den. He didn’t like any­body knock­ing at the door, even at that point,” says Louise.

“But I thought he needed a pet,” she continues. “We had a cat, Toby, who was eight and quite a grumpy char­ac­ter. He’d had to deal with Fraser’s out­bursts and Toby was fright­ened of him for ob­vi­ous rea­sons. But Fraser spent such a lot of time sit­ting on the floor be­cause he was slow to walk and he’d started to show an in­ter­est in Toby. I just thought, ‘Why don’t we get him his own cat?’”

She opted for one from a res­cue cen­tre, so that if it all went wrong she could eas­ily give it back. But she says the chem­istry be­tween them was im­me­di­ate.

“There were two cats in the pen; one was Billy, the other Bear. Bear wasn’t in­ter­ested at all. Billy was like, ‘Who’s this?’ He didn’t come up to me or Chris. He jumped on Fraser straight away. He seemed to re­alise that Fraser wasn’t com­fort­able with that, and he ad­justed him­self, and put his head up to Fraser’s face, and was just push­ing his head on him. It was just re­mark­able to watch be­cause Fraser didn’t en­gage with any­thing. He didn’t even en­gage with me very much. And to see him like that was mind-blow­ing.”

I ask Fraser what it is he likes about Billy. “I like hug­ging him and kiss­ing him and jig­gling him around,” he says, nuz­zling him.

Watch­ing Billy get­ting at­ten­tion from Fraser and also from his sis­ter Pippa and her own kit­ten, Percy, it’s clear Billy is a very good-na­tured cat. “He isn’t a cat who likes be­ing held,” Louise clarifies. “But you see he in­ter­acts with Fraser beau­ti­fully. He is an ex­cep­tional cat.”

Nor­mally Fraser is un­easy with hu­man con­tact and at times an­noyed be­yond words by his mother gaz­ing at him; Louise says, “Some­times, if he’s watch­ing TV, I’ll look at him and he goes, ‘Mummy, why are your eyes look­ing at me?’”.

But it is clear he has an in­tensely phys­i­cal re­la­tion­ship with Billy. “Fraser does hug me but he’s very se­lec­tive about when and how,” says Louise. “He will grab my shoul­der quite tightly and push on it re­ally hard and that’s it. The way he hugs Billy is to­tally dif­fer­ent.

“The ther­a­pist got me lots of dif­fer­ent toys that vi­brate, be­cause it’s well doc­u­mented that autis­tic chil­dren find them com­fort­ing. Fraser didn’t like any of them, but he loves Billy’s purr. He lies on his body and can feel the vi­bra­tion.”

Louise has al­ways liked an­i­mals and this, Dr Brad­shaw be­lieves, is also key. “There is also the pos­si­bil­ity that it’s not just the cat that is un­usual, but the mother or the fa­ther is also un­usual and has man­aged that re­la­tion­ship [be­tween cat and child] well,” he ex­plains.

Louise ad­mits now she wasn’t cop­ing well with Fraser. “It is clear that I had post­na­tal de­pres­sion,” she says.

How­ever, she didn’t re­alise it then. When Fraser was about three months old, she was re­ferred to a doc­tor who pre­scribed an­tide­pres­sants. “But I was hav­ing none of it. I thought, I don’t need them, I can do this by my­self.”

The turn­ing point was Fraser get­ting se­vere gas­troen­teri­tis when he was four months old. “He was taken into hospi­tal and I re­mem­ber see­ing him with all these wires and he was com­pletely help­less.

He wasn’t cry­ing – he was scream­ing. He was so sick. And I just knew I had to get a grip. I needed to start tak­ing the pills. I’d been lost in this hor­ren­dous mess of anger, selfloathing and pity and they gave me a bit of clar­ity. I slowly started to get my­self back.”

Louise’s ded­i­ca­tion to Fraser is re­mark­able. For ex­am­ple, Fraser finds cer­tain clothes un­com­fort­able. “He doesn’t even like to touch jeans. But I’ve learnt, like ev­ery­thing, to traipse around shops look­ing at hun­dreds of pairs un­til I get the right one.”

And get­ting Billy was part of the same mind­set. “A lot of people are go­ing to read the book and think it’s a load of rubbish, but I don’t care whether people be­lieve it or not. Be­cause if there’s one mum out there who is where I was five years ago, and it helps her, that is who I want to reach,” she says. “Billy was a re­ally calm­ing in­flu­ence on ev­ery­body,” she adds.

And as Billy sits by the door wait­ing to be let out into the High­land night, her only con­cern is whether he’ll re­turn in the morn­ing. “I worry about it ev­ery day,” she says.

Billy will be four this year; Toby the cat was 14 when he died.

Does she have a con­tin­gency plan should any­thing hap­pen? “No,” she replies. “Our mantra has al­ways been: don’t look too far ahead, just deal with now.”

Billy seems able to read Fraser’s moods and is very sup­port­ive

Louise says you can see the ten­sion leave Fraser’s body when he is with Billy

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