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 Hewas withdrawn and angry; she was desperate.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
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