What a diagnosis does and doesn’t mean

We got an autism diagnosis shortly before his 10th birthday when we had him tested for ADD, and I was completely blown away. All of his life, I’ve seen certain struggles and chalked them up to emotional immaturity. Developmentally, he grew just fine, and in some areas he excelled. He showed artistic ability starting at two, and I was relieved to see deep compassion by five or six. He’s always been “quirky,” but I encourage walking to the beat of your own drummer. He’s been extremely social and extroverted since he could walk, and never exhibited stranger danger. He is so smart and has a unique perspective on a lot of things. He’s been a comedian and entertainer for as long as I can remember. He has an extraordinary vocabulary.

However, he’s had his difficulties, especially in relating to peers, but isn’t that expected in gifted children? Since preschool, we’ve had extra conferences with his teachers. We’ve always had an amazing support system from his schools in helping troubleshoot his difficulties. In third grade, he started exhibiting troubling tendencies, and when we met with his school, the first thing they said was, “He has anger issues; what can we do to help?”

Since then, he’s seen the school social worker on a regular basis, been in a small group session with other kids at school once a week, and has a customized “check in check out” program that has taught him to self-monitor his behavior. He goes to a therapist once a week, and he’s been in ABA therapy for over a year. (Insurance slowed down the process after the diagnosis, but eventually we got him 1:1 ABA therapy about four to five times a week.

Now at 11, I see him maturing in so many ways. He still has a lot of difficulties with “social skills” and other deficiencies but we see regular progress.

He is compassionate but has a hard time empathizing. Yet he can be incredibly perceptive about emotions and psychological states at times. His sense of humor shows that he really gets verbal nuances. His brain is such a puzzle.

I love my child for who his is, and I wouldn’t change him for anything. Getting the diagnosis was probably the best thing for us, as it helped us better understand him. But there’s still so much that amazes me every day.

It’s been said that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. That is even truer today than it’s ever been.


Accept cats for what they are

“I’m having a lot of trouble with ‘Isabel.’ Unfortunately I’m going to have to return her.”

I received the text early one morning and hesitated before responding. A kitten had been adopted about six months previously from the rescue I volunteer with. I had screened the adoption application carefully, as I do with all of the applications I receive, and believed I had found a cat-savvy adopter who would not only give the kitten a good home, but spoil her too.

Rather than try to deal with her complaints myself, I gave her the rescue’s main number and referred her to the rescue’s director. I didn’t have the patience that morning to deal with it. What kind of trouble could a kitten be causing? The possibilities raced through my head, but I knew the director was better equipped to deal with this situation than I was.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t my first experience with a returned kitten. I’m fairly new to screening adoption applications; I haven’t been doing it for even a year yet. In that time, I’ve mostly been given cat and kitten applications, and I’ve been responsible for finding homes for more than 35 animals. It can be hard work and time-consuming on top of my day job–but rewarding when I know I’ve found a good home and I see the happy faces. Most of the time, I never hear back from them, but some do keep in touch and send pictures and happy messages. Sometimes (luckily, not often), it doesn’t work out for one reason or another, an animal get returned, and I hold my tongue.

Not too long ago, a 10-week-old kitten was returned for not using the litterbox. I had given the adopter advice, but they were determined that it was something they just couldn’t handle. Despite having said they couldn’t imagine a reason for giving up a pet, they gave up on that small kitten in less than 48 hours.

When I first decided to get a cat, I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never had a cat before, and I really didn’t know what was required to take care of one. I went with my young son to PetSmart, we picked out a cat, and they let us adopt him on the spot. Tom Jones was eight years old, a flamepoint Siamese, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Tom was a cranky cat, not at all affectionate, and if you tried to pet him he’d scratch or bite you. It wasn’t long before my son got scratched on the face, and although he would continue to love cats, he was afraid of them for a long time to come.

I hear from applicants all the time that they’re looking for an affectionate cat–one they can snuggle with. I just laugh to myself, wondering why they’re applying for a cat. Eventually, Tom would lay on me while I watched TV, although he didn’t really like me to pet him. He wanted things on his terms–I was a warm pillow for him to rest on. If I tried to pick him up, I risked getting scratched. If I petted him while he was snuggling with me, he would nip at me or at the very least run away. But I never minded, because I was giving him a home. I had a dog that liked to snuggle, and that’s all I needed.

After a couple of months, Tom had gotten used to his home, and I decided to adopt another cat. This time we got Siren–a fat gray tabby affectionately nicknamed “Fatboy” by his foster mom. Siren and Tom didn’t get along at all, and Siren spent most of his time hiding in my bedroom closet. Eventually, they warmed up to each other, and sometimes I would catch them snuggling together to keep each other warm while napping.

Not long after I adopted Tom and Siren, I began volunteering for Animal Education and Rescue. I was looking for something to keep me busy in my free time, and I told myself I would only volunteer–no fostering. That vow lasted a month, until the first time the rescue had a stray cat that needed a foster home. Morrie was about four years old and very emaciated, and I couldn’t say no. Morrie was adopted in two weeks–what I later learned was amazingly fast for an adult cat. It was a rewarding experience, and I went on to foster many more animals–a few dogs, but mostly cats.

A few months later, I took in a foster I named Chaplin. He was a stray, about four years old and very sweet. Although he was declawed in front, Chaplin didn’t get any applications, and over many months he became part of the household. Chaplin was a vocal cat, with a funny way of calling for someone when he was looking to play. He often woke me up during the night to knead my neck and give me kisses on the lips. I didn’t enjoy the interrupted nights, so I kicked all the cats out of my bedroom at night, but my affection for Chaplin grew. After about five or six months, I decided to adopt him.

April had been with the rescue for three or four years before I was asked to foster her. She had been taken in as a kitten but never found someone to adopt her. I was asked to foster her in the hopes that she would get more visibility and eventually found a home. However, my boyfriend, who often coveted my own cats, decided he liked her and decided to adopt her. A year later, when we moved in together, she became my cat again.

April is the meanest of my cats. She’s also the youngest and smallest. She gets to eat first, and she often goes out of her way just to swat at one of the others. They don’t out-and-out fight, but she makes sure everyone knows she’s in charge. She prefers solitude, and lets us know when she wants to be let into our bedroom. She’s too precious to drink from the “common” water bowl, preferring instead to hop up to the sink and have us turn on the water for her. (I sometimes oblige her.) She likes to sleep on me, and lately she’s decided that right next to my head is the best place. The special treatment has been good for April. These days she’s a little less likely to bite or scratch. Sometimes she lets you pet her–as long as it’s in just the right spot. When she’s tired of it, she lets you know with a good nip. She seems pretty content here, especially when left alone in our room.

Tom Jones, now about 13, has mellowed a lot. He’s tolerant when I pick him up; he looks at me, holding his paw up to my face as if to say, “Please, don’t embarrass me.” He waits patiently until I put him back down, then runs off to be alone. He lets me pet him now, sometimes even seeming to enjoy it. The comings and goings of various animals seems to have taught him that he’ll be just fine–he just needs to be tolerant.

There are a lot of feline personalities in my house. Looking back, I realize that what probably helped it work out more than anything else was that I had no expectations for owning a cat. They offer companionship, sure, but mostly I’m just giving them a home, and I’m letting them live here on their terms. It’s nice when they stop by for pets, but mostly they do their own thing, and I’m here to feed them. A cat isn’t a dog, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thoughts while people-watching in front of Jewel

From time to time, one of the ways I volunteer for Animal Education and Rescue is to sit outside the entrance to a grocery store and collect donations. We’re completely no-pressure about it. We just sit at a table, smile and say hi to people as they walk by, and say thank you whenever someone drops a donation in the jar. We have business cards and brochures available if anyone wants a reminder of our website, and we offer information if anyone has a question.

There are lots of opportunities to observe people as they walk and drive by. Over the many times I’ve volunteered for this gig, I’ve learned a few lessons.

1. It costs nothing to smile and say hello. Some people expend a lot of energy to avoid eye contact, as if looking at you will obligate them to stop and donate.

2. You can never predict who will respond if you catch their attention. A lot of people look intent on entering the store as quickly as possible, but once they hear you say hello, some people’s faces change and brighten to return the exchange.

3. If everyone gave $1, it would make all the difference. It’s astounding the number of people who enter the store during the few hours that I’m sitting there. Depending on the town, people are more inclined to donate $1 bills or $5. Unfortunately, most of the people who walk by don’t drop in anything. And I get it, a lot of people don’t carry cash any more, and for some, every dollar matters. But for most people, at least in this area, $1 wouldn’t be missed. If they only knew no one would look down on them for dropping in $1. If most people who entered the store dropped in $1, I wouldn’t be surprised if we could raise $1,000 over six hours. But most people don’t think like that.