When Iris Grace Halmshaw’s parents first found out that she was autistic, they were also told that their bright baby may never be able to communicate. However, they refused to give up hope. And after years of research, the family finally discovered the most adorable way to help their daughter.
Iris was actually diagnosed with autism when she was just two years old. And the prognosis was grim: doctors in fact told her mother Arabella Carter-Johnson that her daughter may never be able to talk or develop relationships. Still, that judgment was something that her parents weren’t going to take lying down.
Indeed, the family, who come from Market Harborough, in Leicestershire, England, dedicated the next four years to researching ways to help Iris. But with a little girl who found even making eye contact difficult, they were well aware that getting her to come out of her shell was going to be an uphill struggle.
“She didn’t want to or know how to play with us, showed obsessive behavior, got desperately distressed when we took her near any other children and her sleep patterns were all over the place,” her family revealed on a website dedicated to Iris. However, the girl did have one thing that helped her express herself: a passion for painting.
Carter-Johnson had first introduced painting to Iris as a way to perhaps help her daughter communicate. But when she saw what her daughter could actually create, she was amazed. “Her autism and incredible concentration span has created a style of painting which I have never seen in a child of her age,” Carter-Johnson said on the website. “She has an understanding of colors and how they interact with each other, and she beams with excitement and joy when I get out the paints.”
And after realizing her daughter’s talent, Carter-Johnson began to sell Iris’ extraordinary watercolors online. The money raised would be put towards more art materials as well as therapy sessions. It was also hoped that, through her art, the little girl would raise autism awareness around the world.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Iris’ fabulous creations garnered a lot of attention; she became world renowned for her work and began to sell pieces for thousands of dollars. The little girl counts Daniel Radcliffe and Ashton Kutcher among her fans and has even sold a painting to Angelina Jolie.
However, despite her success in the art world, Iris was still finding it hard to communicate. She also had a fear of water that made bath time a torture for everyone. Still, her mother had heard that animal therapy could work wonders on children with autism – so decided to give that a try.
Indeed, animal therapy has been used to help children with autism for some time. In 2012, for example, a study in France found that the addition of a pet to the family home could boost positive behavior in autistic children. The results found, moreover, that the children’s social skills improved through positive interactions with animals.
But, at first, Iris had no luck: she hated equine therapy and couldn’t get used to canines. In particular, the artist disliked the quick movements dogs made and their wagging tails – and she hated being licked. As a result, Carter-Johnson eventually gave up on the idea of animal therapy.
Then, by chance, Arabella’s brother was going away on vacation and asked the family to look after his cat. And although she was at first reluctant, Carter-Johnson agreed. Amazingly, moreover, the feline had an immediate positive effect on Iris. Keen to see if a cat would help their girl in the long run, then, the family went in search of the perfect furry friend.
For help, Carter-Johnson asked the fans on Iris’ Facebook page, also listing all of the character traits that she’d like their cat to have – and the consensus online was that a Maine Coon cat would be the best. As a breed, Maine Coons are known as “gentle giants.” They are big and fluffy but also intelligent and friendly – making them the ideal cat for therapy.
So, after contacting a breeder, the family soon took home Thula. Thankfully, it was love at first sight for Iris, who instantaneously reached out to hold the fluffy kitten. Thula, too, found a soul mate in Iris and, although she wasn’t trained for therapy, the feline seemed to know just what to do.
In her 2016 book documenting her daughter’s journey, Carter-Johnson explained, “Thula was at Iris’ side from the moment she saw her and slept in her arms during her first night like a guardian angel. When Iris was looking at her books, she would delicately feel Thula’s ears and her long whiskers, or hold her tail at the tip, casually twiddling with the fur as if it were her own.”
“Unlike most children of Iris’ age would, she didn’t maul, stroke or pick up the kitten constantly,” Carter-Johnson added. “Their relationship was based upon companionship. Thula watched with great interest as Iris played, joining in whenever she could.”
What’s more, the now six-year-old Iris has made amazing progress in the two years since Thula came into her life. Indeed, although she still finds conversations difficult, with her cat by her side Iris has been able to speak in short sentences. She’s also overcome her fear of water, and the pair are often found swimming or taking baths together.
Moreover, Carter-Johnson couldn’t believe how lucky they’d been to find their friendly feline. “Thula loved all of the things that Iris found difficult. It was like heaven,” she told CNN in March 2016. Furthermore, the pair followed each other everywhere – and Iris could even be heard giving her friend commands, such as “sit cat.”
With Thula’s help, meanwhile, Iris was also able to go on her first trip abroad to Sweden – and the family now have more vacations planned for the future. And Carter-Johnson hopes that her daughter’s journey, as documented in her 2016 book Iris Grace, will help others with autism, too.
What’s more, although Carter-Johnson is extremely proud of her daughter’s talents, she wants people to realize that all children are special. “I’ve got this saying that ‘different is brilliant,’” she told BBC News in March 2016. “Autism to me is now brilliant. It doesn’t have to be this grim diagnosis. It can be very, very challenging at times, but I feel if you work with the child and work with their interests you’ll see a progression.”
Thanks to Arabella’s belief in her daughter, then, Iris has achieved the most amazing things already. Indeed, not only is she an internationally renowned artist, but her bond with Thula has also helped her open up socially. And the six-year-old’s amazing story just goes to show that anything is possible if you have the right friends by your side.