What to do when you have no words or voice?
What if you don’t read, understand my language, or speak my words?
“I think my cat is autistic”. There are memes, maybe a book or title of a short essay, comments from many of the people in some of the online forums I visit or participate in.
Our cat was a street kitty, we think he was abused before we found him abandoned at about 4 months old and brought him home. We believe he was abused, certainly he had not been handled by humans much, perhaps he was even punished for approaching people (boisterous innocent kittens will climb up a human as if the person could not feel those tiny claws… ouch!). Our new cat hid and was very fearful for over a year, and one day he finally approached us as we sat quietly in our living room, and crept very carefully onto my husband’s lap. First time he had approached us wanting to be with us.
We have had him for almost 9 years now . He has taken on the role of sherriff/prince/enforcer. He knows the schedule.
If I am not up by 4AM he stands outside the bedroom door and calls, or pounds on the door with his front feet until I am up and moving.
Next, to the bathroom, where he gets a drink from the faucet in the sink while I do essential things. Then I open the door to the stairs which lead to our breezeway.. If I don’t do this quickly he pounds on that door with his front feet too.
Then I prepare coffee and cat food. I must do the cat food first! Then about 3 hours later the dog comes to get me and I feed her, first giving her meds wrapped in cheese. The cat is there to supervise and to step up as I fold the dog pill in the slice of cheese. He always get a piece of cheese too. ( be fair and not favor one family member over another, right?)
When the dog goes out, it is “play with the kitty time”. As I close the door on the dog, the cat comes towards me sideways on tiptoes, with his fur puffed up in joyous anticipation. We play with the laser pointer until the dog barks to come in. If I ignore “play with the kitty time” I am harassed, pestered, and finally bitten on the ankles if I do not comply … lets play, its time! No mercy until I get the pointer. My fault for starting that particular routine.
The cat guards the house faithfully all day, going from one room to another to watch out the windows, and taking random naps when exhausted from his duties. He will come to tell me if anything is amiss and pester me until I am fully alerted to whatever is wrong. He has alerted me to cats, dogs, and people in the yard or approaching the front door. He alerted me a month ago when a small motor from a tumbling rock polisher in our basement burned out and was smoking.
I was exceptionally stupid that time and it took persistent and vigorous attempts to alert me before I finally understood something was seriously wrong.
I followed him from my computer desk at the back of the house to the basement stairs where I could finally smell the “electric” burning smell. He may have saved us from fire!
The cat has a thyroid condition and eats huge quantities of food, drinks tremendous amounts of water every day. His dish is in constant need of refilling. He will pester me until he gets his food dish refilled. If I ignore him he continues to escalate his “attention getting” behaviors. He calls first. Little chirps, followed by meows and on to full out yodel. If I don’t respond, he comes to me and rubs around my ankles with his face. He stands in front of the computer screen. He bites the edge of the screen, stands on the printer, begins to throw things off the desk, and if all fails, he bites me . That always gets my attention. I am a very oblivious person when locked into research or other computer activities.
The cat stands guard when I nap or when I take a shower, and when it is bed time.
If I don’t follow routine and go to bed at the usual time, I am pestered, my ankles get swatted and nipped, and I am ‘herded’ toward the bedroom. Routines must be enforced!
Things that deviate from normal upset him. Visitors are considered intruders until he has met them many times and they have proved their non threatening status.
What does my cat have to do with autism?
You can see several parallels… his anxiety of changes from regular routine, his desire to avoid social interactions with strangers, I could go on, but that is not what I am actually trying to point out.
If the cat tries to get my attention and can not do it, if his attempts to communicate are ignored, he will ‘escalate’ his provocative behavior until I recognize he needs or wants something from me. Something requires my participation to answer his needs. If he is thwarted and frustrated because I don’t respond in the way he needs and wants me to, he finally bites me in order to get my attention and response.
Here is the message.
Can we compare the behavior of a cat with the behavior of an autistic person without words? How many times are we stupid about seeing needs and wants of that individual because they do not say plainly in words what they need, want, feel, think?
If a cat can have such understanding and work hard to communicate, why don’t people understand how desperate a human without words might be to obtain similar interactions with those around him/her/them? How frustrating and hurtful to be dismissed as stupid, unthinking, unfeeling? How long before despair and resignation and hopelessness set in? How about anger and frustration?
If a person resorts to escalated behavior including throwing things around, beating on things, or biting themselves or others, maybe the reasons lie in the fact that their other ways /means of communications are not being sought or heard or acted upon. Think about that.
Maybe its time to listen, to watch, to stop dismissing behaviors as random or annoying, or something to be trained or punished away, and maybe we should be attempting to find new ways to communicate.
If my cat is working so hard to communicate, can you doubt that the non-speaking autisic person in your life is trying to reach out to you? Isn’t it obvious that this must be true?
Dismissing persons without words as stupid or treating them as if they are also non-thinking or non-feeling is a serious mistake.
So called “intelligence tests” are meant to measure the responses of people who have words. It is a serious mistake to assume that because one does not have language or may not be able to speak or read, one is not intelligent, does not think, and does not feel.
It seems imperative to me that any and all methods should be used to find ways to communicate. Not just to force speech or train word responses, but also to look for ways to seek behavioral signs and to listen and to watch, and finally understand and then respond to the things that non-speaking persons may be trying to tell us.