Friday, October 3, 2014

Therapy in Paint and Purrs

Five-year-old Iris Grace Halmshaw from the United Kingdom loves to paint. She's got a knack for it, too; Iris has autism and is mostly non-verbal, but her painting style is not what one might expect from a child her age. Many of her paintings have sold for hundreds, and a few in the thousands, of dollars.

Iris's painting started when she was about two years old after she was diagnosed with autism and it was suggested she take up a hobby as a form of therapy. Painting thrilled her, and while her parents saw the joy painting gave their daughter and recognized the distinction between her art and the art of others her age, they were not immediately convinced that the talent they saw on the sheets of watercolor paper was more than biased parental perspective. According to her father, Peter Halmshaw, he thought the paintings were amazing, but assumed that's what all parents thought of their children's abilities. It wasn't until people outside the family started commenting on the paintings and offering to buy them that her skill became apparent.


While painting did serve as a helpful therapy for her, it wasn't until last winter that somewhat of a breakthrough occurred in terms of Iris's communication skills. Painting is her way of expression, not speech. But during the Christmas holiday, the Halmshaw family got a temporary visitor that would influence Iris's development into the present. Shiraz, a Siberian house cat, had a brief stay with the Halmshaws and, as Iris's mother, Arabella Carter-Johnson, said, “opened up a door that I had no idea was unlocked.”

Iris had never really shown much of an interest in animals, but she followed Shiraz around the house, saying, “C-A-T” and “cat” and “more cat'. She sat comfortably next to Shiraz and offered her water, eventually inviting the cat to a sort of tea party. Shiraz calmed Iris, kept her company, and opened up a different side of the little girl.

But Shiraz had to go back home to London. Iris's parents were stunned by the interactions their daughter had with the cat, it was a short time before they got a Maine Coon kitten for Iris. Thula, named after one of Iris's favorite African lullabies, took to Iris instantly and caused positive change upon arrival. Iris wakes up early and enthusiastically and talks to Thula, who is a loyal and respectful companion. The respect goes both ways; Iris is not overly grabby with Thula (but over time has actually become more responsive to physical touch with the cat), and Thula is always there, as if by instinct, when Iris needs her.

Iris and Thula begin a new painting.
Further, Thula has been an enthusiastic painting assistant. When Iris clearly said “paint” and “painting for the first time, her mother's excitement sent Iris running around the house, arms joyously in the air. She came back to the kitchen where her painting station is set up, adds more paint to the paper, then takes off with brush in hand to show Thula the color she chose. Iris dabs the brush on the sheet upon which sits Thula, and the cat playfully puts her paws on top of the paint dots.

The two continually fortify their already strong bond, and Iris's communication skills and emotional control keep improving. Check out Iris's website to read more about Iris, her painting and other therapies, and Thula.

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