In this Reader's Digest recommended read, a mother celebrates her daughter’s talent and individuality—and the extraordinary friend who encourages her.

Iris Grace
Buy Iris Grace by Arabella Carter-Johnson for £13.99

 

Meet Iris Grace…

Iris Grace
Iris and Thula

Within a year of her daughter’s birth in 2009, Arabella Carter-Johnson already suspected that something was wrong. Even by babies’ standards, Iris Grace was a frighteningly bad sleeper. She also appeared unmistakably distant. Arabella was told it was far too soon to worry—but Iris increasingly found the presence of other children distressing and, after saying “dada” at eight months, stopped talking.  

Finally, aged two, she was diagnosed as autistic by a doctor who offered Arabella the less-than-helpful advice that, “There are an abundance of therapies you can try, but very few work.”

In fact, by a lengthy process of trial and error, Arabella found activities that obviously do help her daughter, including music and riding on the back of her dad’s bike. Above all, Iris suddenly demonstrated a remarkable talent for art: producing large multi-layered Impressionist-style paintings that take her several days and that once led to the Leicester Mercury headline, “Top artist aged 3.”

But this beautifully illustrated book (as well as Iris’s paintings, we get Arabella’s terrific photos) is much too honest to be a simple record of triumph over adversity. Iris has made progress, but by no means steadily, with promising developments often followed by periods of regression. As Arabella says, “She will always be on the spectrum… she slides along that spectrum from moment to moment.” 

Meanwhile, one particularly extraordinary source of help has been a cat called Thula. She seems to understand exactly what Iris needs at any given time, sits riveted when Iris paints and has helped her accept such previously meltdown-inducing activities as having a bath, getting a haircut and going to sleep. 

And, as this extract shows, Thula had this ability from early on. The scene is set in Iris’s bedroom, where a seriously sleep-deprived Arabella is near breaking point…

 

The excerpt

painting
Iris painting with her constant companion, Thula, by her side

As Iris’s frustrations mounted she started to cry, and her sobs filled the quiet room. I felt so hopeless as I held her close. Nothing seemed to comfort her apart from the book and I longed for some help, but she pushed away all who tried apart from me. The pressure of that was becoming too hard to bear. The highs and lows over the previous four years had been exhilarating but exhausting. Our minds were constantly trying to keep up and understand her world as she was learning to be in ours.

Downstairs, the credits at the end of the film were rolling and the fire in the wood-burning stove was almost out.

‘What is it, Thula?’

My husband P-J looked at our new kitten who had suddenly got up off his lap. Her eyes focused towards the door and she had one foot raised, perfectly poised in the air. She was alert: something had grabbed her attention—cries that were undetectable to his ears were like sirens to hers. Then her legs were moving fast. Scooting round the corner, she flew up the stairs into Iris’s bedroom and jumped onto the bed. She curled up next to Iris, ignored the crying and started grooming herself, licking her paws and rubbing them over her ears.

Almost immediately, Iris’s mood changed. She giggled at Thula’s huge ears as they were folded down forward and then pinged back. The long tufts of black fur at the tips were backlit by the hallway, and her outline was adorable, with large ears set upon her tiny head. Fine longer hairs along her silhouette glowed in the darkness. The whiskers were next, and it was a performance like nothing I have seen before, combining comedy with beauty. Iris relaxed and put down her book. Seizing the opportunity, I slipped out of the room and waited at the bottom of the stairs, listening for the inevitable crying that would take me back to her side. There was silence: no bounces, no pages being turned, and no hums or cries.

I waited till suspense got the better of me, then tiptoed to the door of her room and peeked in. Iris had fallen asleep with her kitten by her side and they were turned towards each other. Iris’s hand rested on Thula’s shoulders and I could hear a gentle purr. Their bodies mirrored one another with Thula’s paws up against Iris’s arm. Although still a tiny kitten and a new member of our family, Thula was already watching out for Iris, her faithful companion. She was a friend to me too, stepping in and helping when I needed it the most. I didn’t even need to ask, she knew instinctively what to do and how to help. This magical kitten was changing our lives and this was just the beginning.

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