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Explaining Autism: With Cats

Most of us have heard the saying “All cats are autistic.”

Usually it’s meant as a joke, but there is a hint of truth to it. I see a lot of behaviors in my cat that I recognize in myself. In explaining what autism is, I’ve found referencing the difference between cats and dogs to be a way of highlighting the statement of “Different, not less.”
Of course, the usual disclaimer applies: autistic people are not animals. We’re human beings. That really should go without saying, but life experiences have told me that some people need reminders in regards to our humanity.

First, meet Leia Lyta:

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A tabby cat with green eyes sits on a purple rug. She’s holding a red catnip toy.

Leia Lyta is my emotional support animal here at the university. I have PTSD with dissociative/derealization episodes, chronic depression, and a lot of other conditions in addition to my autism.  Her purpose is to help keep me stable and comforted. She also gives me routine; I have to feed her, clean the litter box, brush, etc.

Anyway, she’s going to help me explain autism. No, seriously. Stay with me here. It’ll make sense.

What is Autism?

Autism is classified as a developmental disorder, a neurological variation. 1 out of 68 children are expected to be diagnosed with autism. The predominant theory is that it is caused by genetics (considering both of my brothers are also on the spectrum, I quite agree).
People on the autism spectrum are all quite different, but there are some similar characteristics that we all share. This is where Leia Lyta comes in.

Sensory

One of the most significant traits of autism is a different experience in terms of sensory input.

We are often sensitive to light, sounds, touch, and other things. If we are startled or overwhelmed, we will react accordingly. This could mean fight, flight, and other biological responses to distress.

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My cat hiding in a paper bag with her tail poking out. She was startled by our neighbors’ music.

Sometimes different things can help with sensory regulation: weighted blankets, fidgets, and other things of this nature. Self-stimulated behaviors are what we call “stimming.”

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Leia loves to snuggle on top of my purple weighted blanket.

Stimming is just one way that we relax when we’re overwhelmed. We also do it when we’re happy, too!

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Gif of Leia kneading because she’s happy. The caption says “Making biscuits”

Autistic people love to stim, especially with stim toys and fidgets. They help us focus and regulate our senses.

Funnily enough, Leia also enjoys fidgets herself – but mostly just because she’s curious.

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Gif of Leia playing with my fidget spinner.

One of the negatives of sensory differences is what we call meltdowns – or as I call them, the absolute Worst Thing Ever. They’re not enjoyable for us or those around us. I know when I have them, afterwards I feel as if I have the flu, hit by a truck, and ran a 5k all in one. I don’t have them as much as I used to since I’ve figured out how to cope a bit better, but when I do have them – it’s not so fun. They’re very scary for me, and sometimes even a little bit messy.

The best way to stop meltdowns is to help prevent it altogether. Being attentive to the autistic person’s needs is the best way. Are they struggling with transitions? Use visual schedules, timers, and other tools to help break it down to make it easier. Is it communication? Try writing, sign language, AAC, or even the Picture Exchange Communication System (at least in the beginning; I’d recommend transitioning from PECS to AAC as they get older). Sensory issues? Be aware of what their triggers are. If it’s bright lights, try dimming them or give the person sunglasses. For noises, try noise cancelling headphones, ear plugs, or give them earbuds to listen to music instead. Have a quiet place that they can retreat to when it gets to be too much.

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This was a couple of days after I’d first rescued my kitty. A very, very messy crate – as Leia panicked when alone, and kicked litter everywhere. I had to give her a bath after this. (Worst idea.)

Repetition, Repetition…

We love routine and repetition – a lot. Echolalia, special interests, daily routines – they’re all typical for us. Several aspects of our lives can be very repetitive. While many may consider this a negative, it gives us a sense of control and comfort. In a world full of surprises, our brains need this stability.

A perfect example would be ‘special interests’ and fixations. We will think about, play, or watch the same things over and over and over.  You might find it a bit odd, but we find it strange when people don’t have them!

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Gif of Leia playing with her favorite toy – a round ‘turbo scratcher’ that she will attack for hours.

Of course, you’ll find that a lot of us love tablets, computers, and television. For some, this is a special interest in itself. A favorite television show, Minecraft, or a YouTube channel – these are all things you’ll probably see some autistic people drawn to.

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Leia is staring at an iPad and watching cartoon fish swim around.

This is also why you’ll find a lot of autistics love science-fiction, fantasy, or other fictional things.

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She enjoys watching Star Trek, especially The Next Generation and Voyager.

We also may like the same food, and might eat it every day. This isn’t uncommon, although perhaps slightly unhealthy (such as when the only thing I ate for months was ravioli). It could be due to the texture, the steps involved in preparing it, or just simply that we love it.

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Moon Pies may not be Leia’s favorite food (she’s not allowed), but she will make a persistent attempt. Very similar to me when I see pizza rolls.

Socializing

Ah, yes. The ‘fun’ part that everyone thinks of.
Typically, our social skills aren’t the best. Some of us are good at ‘masking,’ where we can kinda fake it (I am one of these people, until I hit burnout).

Sometimes our social ‘battery’ is just low and we’re not too interested. Playing and hanging out with others is quite draining! I have to pick and choose how much I can handle.

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Leia also likes to rest after socializing. In this photo, she’s snuggled with a teddy bear and hiding under a blanket.

Other times, we really do want to interact – but it’s just really difficult to understand social nuances and procedures.

A common thing seen in autistic kids and teens is a concept called ‘parallel play.’ This is when we play next to someone; we don’t always communicate with the other person, but it’s still a form of socialization. Sometimes when we’re a little stressed out, it can be good to just sit with other people and do our own thing.

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Leia sitting next to another kitty at my friend’s house. They didn’t interact much that day, other than when Leia started grooming her.

Eye contact is a big issue for a lot of us. For myself, it’s almost painful and definitely uncomfortable. I got away with it as a kid because I would read people’s lips (one of the perks of being hard of hearing). Sometimes we can focus on the conversation and the person much more when we’re not forced to make eye contact.

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Cats aren’t always too fond of eye contact either. Leia is a little distressed at seeing herself in the mirror.

People often think we’re stand-offish because we may not express things the same. We may not always enjoy hugs or like to be touched. Some of us don’t communicate verbally, or we may be a bit ‘awkward.’

Rest assured, we’re just as lovable as anyone else.

We just have our own ways of expressing affection – just as cats and dogs do! We might not do things like neurotypicals, but that doesn’t mean we’re any less valuable or worthy to love and be loved.

Our brains just work a bit different than other people’s, and that’s okay.

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The Communication and Spoon Board

Note: spoons in this context refer to energy available to use in a given day. I am very fond of what’s called the spoon theory, and I use it often to help describe how I’m feeling.

In the beginning of college, I developed something I called the ‘Spoons Board.’

As my roommate and I were both autistic, we knew we had to come up with something to make things easier. Living with other people (even your best friends) is hard, whether neurotypical or not. To help with our communication and gauge energy levels (spoons), this board was often used.

This allowed us a central station to leave notes, check each other’s schedules, and understand how the other person is feeling that day.

As I have difficulty with reading emotions, this was a really big thing for me. Dealing with chronic illnesses: energy is even more a factor for us.

Underneath was my communication board, something we would use when either of us went non-verbal or when I was having trouble with my hearing (I’m actually deaf in one ear).

I didn’t really have much planned for the post; I just wanted to share something that I found to be an incredibly useful tool!

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Executive Functioning?

Tools and Strategies

Have you ever had the feeling of walking into a room and having completely no idea what you’re supposed to do next? It’s remembering that you’ve forgotten, but not knowing what.
Or, have you ever had so many tasks that you get too overwhelmed? A task so daunting you decided to go for a lie down instead?

That’s something many autistic people have every single day.  

One of the things that is quite difficult for many autistics and neurodivergent people is something called ‘executive functioning.’  It’s the mental processing involved in making decisions, multi-tasking, organization, and getting started on tasks.  It’s not exclusive to autism, though. It happens in people with ADHD, cognitive impairments, and even mental illnesses such as chronic depression.
One of the most significant issues with executive functioning is the assumption that the person is lazy.  This is often the case when the person is a teenager- especially as teenagers are often known for their laziness! However, it can actually be detrimental to accuse the person of laziness. Many times, they already are frustrated with the difficulties of executive functioning. The scolding, in turn, can exacerbate stress on the person and cause greater difficulty in functioning.

Of course, we can be lazy too. It’s okay to be lazy sometimes; relaxing is a perfectly healthy thing to do! That’s another topic altogether.

Someone who struggles with executive functioning may have difficulty with organizing tasks. If you give them several instructions at once, they may feel overloaded and overwhelmed. They may even have trouble remembering what you told them. When this happens, they may not be able to do them at all – or only one or two. For myself, I have sat in my floor for two hours because I was trying to process my tasks for the day. My brain has to pick each step apart so I can fully grasp it, or else I become overwhelmed significantly.


Visuals and Schedules

I actually have several post-it notes around my room to remind me of important tasks, as you can see below.

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An edited collage of several post-it notes from around my dorm room. Many cover things such as eating, self-care, and chores that need to be done.

Some of these things are processes I’m actually quite good at, such as looking after my Leia Lyta. This is because cats are mostly self-sufficient, and I tend to prioritize her anyway. Cats don’t let you forget.

Other things are things I need reminders on – like brushing my hair or taking my meds. Lately, I’ve had a bit of an issue of remembering food. My body isn’t really registering it as much as it used to, which is probably not a good thing. I’m not the only person who has trouble with that, though. It’s nice not being alone, at least. Because of that, I keep Ensure drinks on hand to try and keep my nutrition stable.
(Tip: if you or your kids have issues with this sort of thing, nutrition drinks are the way to go. They’re actually not that bad once you find the right flavor for you.)

If you’re more picture-oriented, a “First, Then” board or  visual schedules are also very useful. When my brother was first diagnosed, that was often used in the household. We had a really nice binder with lots of different pictures, and it was great. It helped him transition more easily, and it helped prevent frustration a little more.  I secretly wanted one for myself, to be honest! We used them when I volunteered in the CDC classroom as well, and they were fantastic.

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A small example of a ‘First, Then’ board. This one is from a Vanderbilt ASD module – which of course, doesn’t seem to show any girls in its examples. *sigh*

For myself, I’m in the process of making several visual schedules for my dorm. I’ve got one for my morning routine, and hoping to finish making the rest soon! It might seem a little childish, but it’s really helpful to have a visual prompt and simplistic list of steps to keep me on track in the mornings. It helps me live a more independent life, which is actually something that I have trouble with.

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A visual schedule listing each step for getting ready in the morning. I made sure the images were cute – a way to make me feel a bit more cheerful as I checked off each list.

Technology

Another big help for me  these days is technology. Phone alarms and medical apps are a lifesaver, and serve as good reminders. I’m considering getting an app for visual schedules for myself too, but all the nice ones seem to cost a bit.

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A phone alarms menu and a medication reminder app menu. The medication reminder app is called ‘Round,’ if you’re curious. I’ve yet to find an app I prefer the most. (Edit: Since I last posted this, there have been several medication changes and additions.)

The alarms go off at specific times. Some are reminders for medication, while others are for eating. I use the medication app so that I can remember whether or not I’ve been taking them correctly during the past month.

Of course, even a medication/pill box can be useful – especially if you forget easily. Sometimes even a chart can come in handy!

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A poor quality photo of my medicine box. These are just the meds I can put in there. I may be upgrading it soon, actually.

There is also a daily habit app called Habitica that can be quite useful! I don’t use it anymore because they changed the format (did I mention my frustration with change?), but it’s still a good tool to look into!

Planners and Organization

As for daily planners and organization, I have several methods. My main calendar is through my phone, per the typical college student’s life.

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A side-by-side view of my two calendars I use to keep up with classes and appointments. I usually only have to put data in one of them and they sync. However, the one on the left (iStudiez Pro) also has the option to include assignments and due dates. 

Many people prefer to go “old-school” and make lists. Some find it easier to write in an agenda or personal calendar. It’s all a matter of preference, honestly. I find that writing things out also helps, as having a concise monthly view can make scheduling a bit easier. The only downside is how overwhelming all the information can be.

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My “old school” agenda that I use to keep track of all my events and appointments. Bonus: color coded!

Some people even prefer wall calendars or desk ones. I use different ones with mostly the same information. It helps me remember, but it also gives me a rough idea of how my day is going to go. With this information, I’m much less likely to have a meltdown or get too stressed during the day.

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My wall calendar! It’s somewhat incomplete, as I don’t always remember to write everything on it. Even so, it’s a helpful tool for me.

Things such as worksheets and executive functioning handouts are also incredibly useful. I went over some of them when I did the executive functioning workshop a while back. The best part is that you can use them to work out complex situations – or simply just to get a better understanding on how to keep your brain motivated and in tune with your daily activities.
If you want any of these resources, just send me a message and let me know! I can usually find printable things to help. I’d post them here, but I don’t know if I’d get in trouble for copyright issues. Let me know and I’ll do what I can to help you! I also have located slideshow presentations with more in-depth information included if needed.

And as always, just keep stimming!