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.