Pets & Animals

The amazing bond between a 6-year-old girl with autism and her cat

You can think of 6-year-old Iris Grace Halmshaw's life in two parts: before Thula and after Thula.

The young girl from Leicestershire, England, has autism, and her parents worried she might never speak or enjoy social interactions — until she met Thula, a Maine coon.

"Iris and Thula were like best buddies from the start," Arabella Carter-Johnson, Iris' mother, told TODAY.

Arabella Carter-Johnson
Iris reads with her cat, Thula.

Since getting Thula in 2014, Iris has started to talk, something doctors warned she might never do, and she's also grown more comfortable doing activities that once triggered severe anxiety, like riding in a car, taking a bath or swimming, her mom said.

Thula has also been helpful in an area of Iris' life many people already know about: her artwork.

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The young girl made headlines in recent years for incredible paintings that drew comparisons to Monet.

Some sold for thousands of dollars, even reportedly attracting celebrity buyers like Angelina Jolie.

Arabella Carter-Johnson
Iris is known as an exceptional artist — even Angelina Jolie has reportedly purchased a painting.

Now Thula sits next to Iris as she paints, a source of comfort for the young girl.

"We even started to see cat shapes within Iris' paintings," Carter-Johnson said.

Iris began painting when she was 3 after encouragement from her parents, who’d tried many types of therapy to get their daughter to open up.

Carter-Johnson, a photographer, said learning Iris’ passion for painting was “a breakthrough.”

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“Even though she wasn’t talking yet, it was as if we could hear her not through words but through her painting,” she said.

Arabella Carter-Johnson
Iris and Thula even ride in the car together.

“Her impressionistic paintings that looked like nature, she adored, and it told us so much and allowed me into her world.

“She would be happy for me to be around her,” Carter-Johnson continued. “I was her artist’s assistant and helped prepare the mugs of watery paint.

“She would guide my hand back to the sink to add more water when she wanted it. It was an extraordinary feeling after so long of struggling to connect with her.”

And then, of course, there was the time that her daughter finally started to talk, thanks to Thula.

"There were moments when I could almost run around the house with excitement, like when Iris asked Thula to 'sit cat' at the painting table or 'more cat' when she wanted Thula to follow her," Carter-Johnson said.

"Before that, Iris had never made any verbal requests,” she said. “And those skills started to transfer to us, too; she spoke more and more every day.”

Carter-Johnson has long kept fans updated on her daughter's progress through social media, and recently published a book illustrating Iris' artwork.

Videos have also earned Thula and Iris some new fans: one particularly popular clip shows the cat bobbing around in the swimming pool and the bathtub next to Iris. (Maine coons are known to tolerate water.)

Carter-Johnson said she, too, has learned a lot from their beloved pet.

“Watching them together has allowed me to understand how to interact more easily with Iris and it’s always a gentle reminder every day,” she said.

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The proud mom hopes other parents of children with autism know that "anything is possible."

"[Thula] is a remarkable cat, but I like to think that many animals could have this impact on a child's life," she said. "Focus on strengths, not weaknesses. I say 'different is brilliant' and I mean it — we need to embrace and celebrate the differences in each of us."

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