Some thoughts

LIFE IN A MIXED MARRIAGE – pussycats and autism

Cats and autism have more in common than you might think, but before I elaborate on that…

I’m sure you’ve noticed that there has been something of a hiatus in these posts and that requires an explanation.

Cats. I’ve had cats all my life and all my adult life I’ve had Siamese cats (until 7 years ago when I encountered the wonder of Orientals, but that’s another story). When I met David I told him he needed to be ‘cat tolerant’. He had no idea just what I meant by that but he did get the bug and as a result, since 2008 we have had four cats between us. Three weeks ago my old boy, Gus (fourteen and a half) died after a two-month illness.

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Above: Gus in his younger days

Losing Gus hit David and me very hard, not least because of all our cats (David’s two included) Gus was the cat who loved him most: the two of them very much had their own way of being together and (very important for autistics) their own rituals. Chief ritual was ‘tickle tower’. Let me explain. We have a cat scratching tower close to the door from our living room to the kitchen and Gus had only to detect the merest hint that David might be thinking of going in that direction to hurl himself at the tower and roll around until David went to make a fuss of him. Believe me, Gus was insatiable when it came to tickles.

Anyway, fourteen years is a long time for Gus to have been part of my life and losing him has been devastating – but at least I have the other three to console me, in particular my Havana, Spook (one of said Orientals).

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Above: Spook looking for trouble

I have always said to David that in the past, having lost one of the cats, I tended to get a new kitten with what some might consider to be indecent haste – in part as a distraction for myself but also because Siamese are social beasts and you can’t have just one. However, on this occasion the other cats had one another and I had Spook so I wasn’t moving as fast as I had led David to believe.

So, from an autistic perspective, he had lost the one cat he could relate to (bearing in mind how hard it is for autistics to know the ‘rules’ for connection be it to humans or animals) and I was not behaving as I’d led him to expect me to behave: I had, in his language and according to his frame of reference, ‘lied’ to him.

All of which led to much heart-searching. I was not (and to a large degree am not) ready for a new kitten but if, as I did seven years ago, I got a new kitten for Gus who was distraught at the loss of his companion (he became very needy and took to sucking my thumb) how could I do any less for David?

Not that he was sucking my thumb, you understand…

Much of the subsequent conversation between David and myself took place during a long drive from West Cornwall to Cambridgeshire and the outcome was that I rang the breeder Spook had come from to see whether he had any kittens. He did and a week later, Ferret (aka Dinsky), an Oriental Caramel, entered our lives.

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Above: Dinsky making himself at home

The big plan is that Dinsky/Ferret should be David’s cat. To this end I needed to give them plenty of time to bond and be very ‘hands off’ – not easy when kittens make me broody and David describes me as ‘cat cocaine’. Not sure about that one although I admit that I do seem to give off felimones (as opposed to pheromones) …

At this point I would ask you to trust me, this may seem like an article indulging my cat obsession but there are some serious points here regarding autism.

To this end, let me tell you a bit more about Spook. As a kitten he was a real live wire but didn’t really have a handle on this loving lark. A bit like an autistic. I sensed that he wanted to be loved but just didn’t know how to go about it (I was reminded of a friend’s two daughters, but that’s a story for another day) so I set about helping him and as a result he is now a very loving cat but mostly only towards me. He is also a magnificent specimen, lean and muscular and when he races round the house playing with the others the floorboards rumble and the house shakes.

I say ‘plays with the others’, but I mean with the cats he has grown up with: Burlington, Jane and whilst he was still with us, Gus. Dinsky however is another matter. Dinsky wants to play: he runs and jumps and turns somersaults and I can see that Spook is desperate to join in but it’s like he’s not sure what to do and he also seems to be a little frightened of the kitten. My Spook, it seems, has a vulnerable side. It was there as a kitten when he wanted to be loved and didn’t quite know how, but I’d lost sight of that in the presence of the boisterous and confident boy he had become. Seemed to have become. I confess to loving him even more now that I have been reminded of his vulnerability.

A bit like David (you see, I promised another autism connection). There was the David I first met, a little vulnerable maybe but the persona he wore in order to function in the neurotypical world was one of confidence, assurance, unflappable calm. Only under stress did that fall apart. Only in coming to understand the reasons for that stress did I start to get an inkling of what his world was really like. Just as I anthropomorphise when trying to understand Spook’s behaviour, so I anthropomorphised David, in other words I treated him as though his view of the world was the same as mine. Understanding that it is not, gaining some appreciation of how exhausting the neurotypical world is for him, fills me we awe and as a result, I seem to have fallen in love with him all over again.

Like I said, just like Spook.

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