Is My Cat Autistic?
It’s become something of a truism that cats often behave like humans with autism. Kirsten, who has a blog called “Running For Autism,” lists thirteen behaviors that prove cats have autism.
Such behaviors include “little interest in playing with other animals,” nighttime wakefulness, and a tendency to play with strings and boxes rather than actual toys.
There are also books that link cats with autism. Amazon sells a book called “Catspergers” about a kitten named Sassy who has symptoms of a type of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome. The story is aimed at children with the condition and is intended to help them understand it.
Barnes & Noble is offering “All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome” by Kathy Hoopmann, who has apparently built a series around pets and disabilities.
She’s also written “All Dogs Have ADD” and “All Birds Have Anxiety.” The book, which also seems to be aimed at children, uses pictures of kittens and cats to depict the way people with Asperger’s act.
Can cats have autism?
According to Mary Nielsen, a writer for “Feline Living,” the answer is “no.” Many of the behaviors that people link with autism are perfectly normal, at least in cats.
For example, many people with autism find making eye contact with others uncomfortable. So do cats, but that’s because they consider prolonged eye contact to be a threat.
Other traits that cats and humans with autism share include a dislike of change and a strong attachment to unusual objects. Such traits, however, are normal in cats.
Cats can also be aloof, and people with autism, by definition, have limited social skills. Cats are also generally more comfortable with people who patiently wait for the cat to come them rather than those who pursue the cat.
How social a cat is can depend on several factors. For example, some breeds are more openly friendly than others. The Siamese is well-known for having an extroverted and demanding personality. Other cats, like the Persian, are quieter and less demonstrative.
Kittens from the same litter that was raised together will often form strong bonds and be extremely friendly and affectionate towards each other.
In some cases, those bonds are so strong that splitting them up could be considered cruel. By contrast, cats that don’t know each other will often have disputes over territory or dominance.
Emily Parker, a writer for Catalogical, agrees that cats don’t have autism. She also argues that the belief that they do stems from people’s tendency to anthropomorphize animals.
In anthropomorphization, a person erroneously ascribes human motives or thinking to an animal’s behavior. Thus, people who see a cat acting in a way reminiscent of a human with autism assume the cat also has autism, even though its behavior is normal for a cat.
What is autism?
According to WebMD, autism is a condition that affects both the nervous system and behavior. It is more formally known as Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD because of its wide range in severity.
Some people with autism can live independently and seem nearly normal, while others are severely disabled and need lifelong care. A person with autism has impaired communication and social skills. They thus have trouble expressing themselves or understanding other people.
A person with autism may be unusually sensitive to environmental stimuli, sometimes to the point that sights, sounds, touches and smells that seem normal to most people cause them great distress or even pain.
The cause of autism is so far unclear. It does run in families, which suggests a genetic component. It is also more likely to develop in a child who has an older parent.
Using certain medications or drugs during pregnancy can increase the risk of having a child with autism. Children with autism typically start showing symptoms during the first three years of life.
Can cats have other developmental or neurological disorders?
Unfortunately, yes. The VCA Hospitals website describes a condition called cerebellar hypoplasia in which a part of the brain called the cerebellum doesn’t develop properly.
Since the cerebellum controls movement and coordination, the kitten develops symptoms similar to cerebral palsy in humans. Like cerebral palsy and autism, cerebellar hypoplasia ranges in severity. Some cats are simply a little clumsy, while others can’t walk at all.
According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, cats can develop other conditions affecting the brain or nervous system, such as epilepsy.
They can also have a congenital condition called hydrocephalus, and they can develop brain tumors. There’s even a feline disease analogous to Alzheimer’s disease called “cognitive dysfunction.” It is seen mainly in older cats.
What is a therapy animal?
According to the National Service Animal Registry, a therapy animal is an animal that can provide comfort and affection to a person who has a disability or serious illness.
They have received obedience training and are chosen for their excellent ability to get along with people and other animals. While most therapy animals are dogs, some are cats or rabbits.
The following video tells the story of a six-year-old girl named Iris who has severe autism. Her family decided to get her a therapy animal to help her. After trying horses and dogs, they decided to try a cat and eventually chose a Maine Coon named Thula.
The parents had heard that Maine Coons liked water and thus hoped that Thula could help Iris overcome her fear of water. It worked: Iris not only learned to like bath time, she even learned to swim – after seeing Thula go into the swimming pool.
How do cats get along children with autism?
Dr. JoAnna Pendergrass, who writes for American Veterinarian, notes that while cats can be aloof, they can be affectionate towards children who are on the autism spectrum. While dogs are often therapy animals for such children, some youngsters prefer cats. Cats are also easier to take care of than are dogs.
“Frontiers in Veterinary Medicine” published a 2018 study about the relationships between cats and children with autism. The study consisted of two parts: The researchers interviewed the parents during the first part and talked to the children during the second.
The researchers worked with 64 families, and most of the children were boys between six and nine years old. Most of the households had more than one pet, and many had more than one cat, so the child could choose from a variety of animal companions.
Most of the cats that interacted with the children were young adults between four and six years old. Over half were domestic shorthairs.
During the interviews with the parents, the researchers asked about the cats’ behavior toward the children. About 30 percent of the cats were described as being very affectionate toward the child, and many were described as preferring the child to the other members of the household. Over half of the children with autism had affectionate feelings toward their cat; they wanted to pet, hold, or snuggle with it.
The parents in the study described how the cats helped their child. Some cats would soothe an upset child, for example, by sitting near them or in their lap.
At least one parent credited their cat with encouraging their child to speak, and one mother described how her pair of Tonkinese cats served as a bridge between her and her daughter.
The researchers found that neither sex nor reproductive status affected how well a cat interacted with a child. Temperament, by contrast, was far more important. The children in the study got along best with cats that were friendly, affectionate, and unaggressive.
How do cats help children with autism?
Pets, in general, can help children with autism, according to Ed Cara, who writes for “Medical Daily.” A 2012 study, for instance, found that preschoolers with autism who had pets were more likely to develop prosocial behaviors like sharing or looking people in the eye.
Playing with pets also helped reduce stress. Children with autism also often find animals easier to understand than people, and caring for a pet can help them learn empathy.
A cat’s usually undemanding ways can help calm someone with autism and put them at their ease. The child doesn’t feel as if the cat is judging them.
A cat’s calm acceptance can encourage a child to try to communicate or face things that scare them. Cats seem patient. When a child is talking, the cat doesn’t interrupt or demand explanations. They just listen.
Olivia Reese, a writer for “Parent Herald,” argues that cats may actually make better pets for children with autism than dogs. Children with autism are often hypersensitive to environmental stimuli like noises or smells. Dogs are physically active, outgoing, and can be noisy.
A dog leaping up to lick a child on the face can overwhelm and upset a child with autism. In other words, dogs can come on too strong.
Cats are generally quieter and more placid and thus seem less threatening to a child on the spectrum. They’re also smaller and have soft fur.