Seven-year-old Iris Grace has autism but, thanks to her heart-warming friendship with her therapy cat Thula, her world has opened up with adventures. Her mother, Arabella Carter-Johnson, explains how they're navigating life together in their unique way.
'Iris Grace used to struggle with just about everything: car rides, bath time, sleeping and even wearing clothes. She also couldn't form relationships very easily because socialising felt so alien to her. That's because Iris has autism, so she experiences the world differently to most, and as a result seemingly simple things can be overwhelming for her.
'But all that changed when Thula, a Maine Coon, came into our lives. We had looked after my brother's cat for the Christmas holidays in 2013 and we noticed how much Iris and that cat bonded. Realising that a therapy cat might be able to help her was like a jigsaw piece slipping into place, so we decided to go on the hunt for a Maine Coon. It seemed like an obvious choice because the breed loves water and, as Iris' dislike for bath times was becoming more and more difficult to manage, we hoped that one of these cats could help her get over her fear.
'Maine Coons are also known for being friendly, gentle giants and that couldn't be more true of Thula. We found her through a local breeder and fell in love with her instantly. She seems to understand Iris in a way that no one else can, and encourages her in subtle ways that we couldn't have imagined.
'They go on all sorts of adventures together, whether it's heading out on Iris' bike, taking walks or even swimming. Thanks to Thula, Iris is talking more and has become more confident, and she's also able to form relationships much more easily than before.
'A normal day for Iris and Thula starts off with playtime on Iris' bed. We then do home education, using activities that have been designed with Iris' interests in mind, and no matter the activity, Thula wants to help and be involved. Plus, Thula is a firm part of our day-to-day outings: she'll accompany us to Iris' Little Explorers Activity Club, where she is a therapy cat, and comes along to Forest School sessions.
'Each day, Thula also plays a part in helping Iris express her amazing talent for creating art. I first noticed Iris' aptitude for painting when she was three - her body language would change entirely as soon as she had a paintbrush in her hand. She'd usually be buried behind a fortress of books, not letting anyone sit beside her, but when she painted she'd dance on tiptoes in the kitchen. She's always experienced things very intensely and gets absorbed in the tiniest of details - it's why she's such an amazing artist and why, despite her age, her impressionist-style paintings are now in demand with buyers. With Thula's help, Iris is able to immerse herself in the details more than ever.
'Iris and Thula show people that being different can be brilliant. Iris is unique, and her special qualities are cherished. And Thula, well, it's not every day you get a cat who'll bike and swim. She's breaking feline stereotypes and we love her for it.'
To view Iris' artworks or to find out more about Iris and Thula, visit irisgracepainting.com