Young boy laying on a beanbag a kitten on a leash is sitting in his lap

Animal therapy has been known to do wonders for those on the autism spectrum, but it’s not just dogs that can help kids open up. Cats can too. At least, that is what the Autism Society of Southern Arizona has learned through its Purrs for Autism program.

Working with the Hermitage No Kill Cat Shelter, the Autism Society of Southern Arizona began offering a cat therapy program designed for children on the spectrum.

“[Lee Bucyk, the executive director of the cat shelter] had been doing research on how animal therapy could assist children on the spectrum and the idea of a cat-centered pet therapy program was born,” Nicole Glasner, executive director of the Autism Society of Southern Arizona, explained. “It is a win-win situation for both organizations. Because those with autism can often lead very isolated lives, this is an opportunity for our kids to connect with something very real and very fuzzy, and it is a chance for the cats to become socialized beyond the shelter and get tons of snuggles.”

As part of the program, kids and teens with autism, ages 5 to 18, meet once a week to play with two to three homeless kittens and cats. In addition to playing with the cats, participants learn how to care for animals as well as the ins and outs of cat adoption. The weekly program is free to attend, ensuring all interested families get to participate.

For those who attend, it has been nothing short of amazing,” Glasner told The Mighty. “The children come out of their shell and learn life lessons from these beautiful cats. The program takes steps to teach pet responsibility (pet safety and cat behavior) and routine, while promoting therapeutic and educational interaction between friend and feline.”

No cats have been adopted by participants yet, but there is always the option for families to take a cat home if a special bond occurs.

To learn more about the program, visit the Autism Society of Southern Arizona’s website

 

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Dearest H,

I am writing this letter to tell you how truly grateful I am that you are my son and how you have changed me as a person. When I first saw your little face over the surgical curtain, I was bursting with pride and happiness. When you were about 8 months old, I noticed you were different from the other babies. As you got older, you seemed unhappy and frustrated, and you found it difficult to tell me what you wanted. I didn’t understand how you perceived the world.

Over time with support, we learned how to communicate with each other, and you were joyful. I will never forget your first word. You were in the bath playing, and I was squirting water at you and saying, “Ready, steady…” and you said, “Go!” I was so elated and felt like I had won the lottery. You were laughing and joining in the game.

Getting your diagnosis didn’t change anything, as I had already started to adapt my parenting to help you develop. I quickly realized attending a mainstream preschool seemed to make you unhappy. You started attending a school that focused on children with needs similar to yours. You enjoyed your first day and still never look back or get upset when you are dropped off.

I was so excited getting ready for your first sports day. I made sure my phone was fully charged so I could take lots of pictures of you. The first race was the egg and spoon. You did a fantastic job and enjoyed the running. You didn’t want to give the egg up at the end and started playing with it and throwing it around the playground. This made me laugh. As the next races were called, I tried to encourage you to join in by picking you up and taking you to the line to wait for your turn. You became upset and ran off every time. You were having a great time away from the other children playing with your egg, running around and going on the slide. I felt deflated and a bit disappointed because I wanted you to join in and enjoy your first sports day. Writing that has made me upset and guilty I ever felt this way.

Later on, I looked through the pictures I took and had an epiphany. It was like a light had been switched on and another door had been opened. I realized I had experienced those feelings because of my own expectations. You didn’t like lining up and waiting or joining in with the other children, so you didn’t want to do those things. I realized I need to focus on the positives — a picture of you on the slide with the biggest grin on your face.

You make me laugh, smile and cry with excitement. You surprise me every day, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of everything you achieve. You have taught me a lot about myself and have made me a better Mummy and a better person. I know we might have challenges to overcome in the future, but we will do it together. H, you light up my life and make me whole. Thank you for being my little boy!

Love you to the stars and back,
Mummy

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To the firefighter who sang to my autistic daughter,

You have put in thousands of hours training to become a firefighter. You physically train so you’re capable of saving people from a variety of life-threatening situations, and you are also capable of providing medical support under unimaginable levels of stress to keep those people alive until they arrive at the hospital. Your dedication, training and study saves lives.

Last Tuesday around 8:20 a.m., you arrived at the horrific scene of my mangled car. I had lost control, ran off the road, over-corrected and crossed two lanes of traffic. The last thing I remember was thinking, “Oh, sh*t. I’m about to wreck,” before hitting a huge tree going about 60 MPH.

They told me I hit four trees and a mailbox, but my memory gets hazy right before I ran off the road. The next thing I recall is some man standing beside my open door, holding something against my bleeding head and telling me I was OK. Things get a little fuzzy again, and then I remember paramedics sliding me out of my car and onto a backboard.

I had a deep gash, about two and a half inches long, across the back of my head, and blood seemed to just pour out of it. My entire right hand was ripped to shreds, and every inch of my body felt a type of pain that no human being should ever have to endure. But none of that mattered. All I cared about was my baby girl, who was sitting in the backseat. I heard her crying, so I knew she was alive, but that was all I knew.

All of you were asking me tons of questions, sticking IVs in my arms, cutting off my clothes, and trying to control all the bleeding. But all I could think about was my daughter Raelyn. I kept repeating over and over, “She’s autistic. She can’t talk. She can’t show you where she hurts. She’s gonna be so scared. Please get my husband or my mom here so they can hold her. Please just get someone here.”

We had to get to the hospital, so we couldn’t wait around for someone to get there. My sweet baby was probably terrified, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. She was being held by you, a complete stranger, while her mommy was covered in blood, strapped down to a backboard.

You know that sinking feeling you sometimes get in your gut?

young girl at the hospital

Well, every time I heard her cry the way she only cries when she’s terrified, that feeling came rushing back. It is still too fresh to bear. You were holding her and trying everything you could to calm her down. Nothing was working, so you asked me what calms her down. Then I made one of the strangest requests you have probably ever received. I asked you,

“Will you please sing ‘Wheels on the Bus’ to her?”

So you did. For the entire 20-minute drive. And she stayed relatively calm. I believe you were an angel in the flesh who was sent to us for a reason. You are the reason I was able to keep breathing. Knowing my child was safe and not in pain allowed me to take another breath.

Every minute that went by without hearing her cry was another minute I was relatively at ease. I knew my body would eventually heal and the physical pain would fade. But there’s that type of pain I believe only a parent can understand: the pain you feel when your baby is scared or hurt. That hurt me so much more than hitting that tree head on. Each time she cried, I physically couldn’t breathe. I wanted to just hold her and tell her it was OK, but I couldn’t. I was completely incapacitated, strapped down to that backboard, while I relied on you to comfort my kid.

Well, you did the unthinkable.

You managed to keep a mom from completely losing her sh*t while her daughter was terrified. As a nurse, I know when you perform a medical procedure for the first time, you’re nervous as hell and praying your patient doesn’t sense your fear. You put on your game face and hope to hell you don’t screw up. I don’t know if you have children, but if you don’t, you damn sure fooled me that day. I had complete faith in you taking care of my baby.

You didn’t have to sing to her in the back of that ambulance. If you hadn’t, she probably would have been fine. But I wouldn’t have been. People talk about PTSD after a car accident, but the sound of crushing metal and the smell of the air bags after they’ve deployed are not what keeps me up at night. The thought of how scared she must have been the moment she realized we were about to wreck is what haunts me. Aside from not wrecking, there was nothing I could have done to comfort her during what is probably the scariest moment of her life. But once you got there, you made it your mission to make her (and me) believe that everything was OK.

So thank you for going above and beyond what you’re trained to do for your job. Thank you for giving me those brief moments of hope while she was content and quiet. By keeping her calm, you kept me sane (relatively). You made the most traumatic experience of my life sting a little bit less. Our car wreck was just another day on the job for you, but you left a lasting impression on me, and I will never forget what you did for us that day.

Your biggest fans,

Summer and Raelyn

mother holding her giggling daughter

Images via Contributor.

Follow this journey on Autism Through Raelyn’s Eyes.

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