Friday, 11 October 2013

Are Cats on the Autism Spectrum?

     I've been concerned for a while now. The smallest change I make to Pusia's routine (that's my routine too you understand - her routine and my routine are synonymous in her world) has a massive impact. I first suspected this was the case when I returned to work after a break and Pusia went on hunger strike. You may have read about that in Love Manipulation and Hunger Strikes but, to cut a long story short, Pusia decided that she'd been abandoned and stopped eating and drinking.

     After a very traumatic visit to the vet when a number of possible causes for her decision to fade away were considered, it turned out there was nothing wrong with her that a cuddle and a saline drip wouldn't sort out. The vet's stern advice was not to leave her alone again for any extended periods as she is, and I quote, "...a very sensitive little cat!"

Sixth Sense

     Who could leave her alone for very long? I certainly can't! She demands so much attention that I feel guilty about the quickest trip to the shops.

Pusia positions herself for maximum emotional blackmail effect...

     She always knows when I'm preparing to go out. It's particularly obvious when I'm getting ready for work because these days it's actually pitch black in the mornings. To Pusia that means she can see perfectly well and, quite frankly, she's wondering what I'm doing up at a time when I'm normally fast asleep in bed!

     She can also tell when I'm about to leave. When she senses I'm at my most vulnerable she'll perch somewhere close by and give me the most appealing look you can imagine.

The Independent Party

     Pusia is not afraid of being left alone. What cat would be? All cats are solitary creatures that hunt, eat and sleep alone. They are the independent party in any relationship. Why then does she make me feel so guilty when I leave her at home?

     Cats are, after all, masters at adapting to change. Pusia is a particularly cool cat in this respect. She came to live with me (in her eyes I think she believes I abducted her) when she was already seven years old. This is a fairly respectable age for a cat (roughly 45-ish in human terms). Turns out that we're both about the equivalent age! It certainly seems we're both set in our ways.

Pusia bonded with me surprisingly well given that we're the same age!

    She's ultra cool because she bonded with me very quickly. This could, of course, be mainly due to the fact that I am pretty much a cat by nature myself. If I find a fellow feline wandering in the streets it's hard, nay impossible, for me not to stop and pet her. It's nearly always a 'her'. The lady cats seem to have a thing for me!

All Change

     So cats are masters at adapting to change. You'd think that meant they would be pretty easy going, right? Wrong. Although they happily adapt to new surroundings just watch what happens when you give them a different type of food.

     I talk with a little more than everyday experience on this subject as I work with students who are diagnosed somewhere on the autism spectrum. Smell is such a powerful sense. Along with hearing it's a cat's dominant sense. If I put an unfamiliar dish of strong smelling food down in front of Pusia it will have the same effect as a spicy curry has on the taste buds of someone unfamiliar with eating hot food!

A strong and unfamiliar smelling curry would be alarming to us!

     It can be the most exotic curry in the world but unless its smell is a familiar one then I'm going to treat it with a generous degree of caution until I know exactly what it is!

     I see Pusia do exactly the same thing as some of my students every time she settles down to her bowl. She first approaches the bowl and sniffs. Cats are, you see, pretty much blind in daylight as their pupils have to constrict to stop powerful sunshine from hurting their sensitive eyes. They only need about 5% of the light we need and are naturally nocturnal.

Making a Clean Slate

     If the smell is right and she recognizes it then she'll dig in with abandon. If she's not so sure then she'll lick it gingerly. I see that during my work too! Once everything has passed the sniff and lick test and she's survived unscathed then the food gets the unconditional go ahead.

Synchronicity! When everything is aligned correctly...

     On the odd occasion that the smell is right, the taste matches the smell, the clouds are the right shade of gray, the stars are in alignment and the wind is blowing in just the right direction then I'll be lucky enough to see her food bowl licked clean.

     Mostly Pusia will eat about a mouse sized portion of food and leave the rest. Occasionally she'll return to polish it off but mostly there will be some indiscernible change to the chemical make up of the food that she detects and which results in its rejection at the second sitting.

     The overall ritual, however, nearly always remains the same. After eating her food Pusia moves into the kitchen (I'm afraid she eats under my adoring gaze in the living room). There she gives her scratch post a good going over and settles down to preen herself for a few moments. 

     Satisfied that she looks gorgeous she moves to the front door and glares at it hopefully, knowing that I will at some stage open it for her. If these mind games don't get the desired result then she'll honour me with an irritated meow which will prompt me to take the appropriate action.

     Once outside she will sit contentedly in the sun or rain (it doesn't particularly matter which in her case) before trotting off in the direction of my next door neighbour's bird table. Any wildlife she encounters on the way is fair game and will inevitably become ex wildlife, I'm sorry to say, unless it's a horse, a cow or another animal of the larger variety.

     Sometimes I think that the wildlife that took up residence in that particular direction must be getting a little tired of the constant raids. The mice, rats and the occasional rabbit must really be thinking, curses on obsessive behaviour patterns!

Entries and Exits

     An area where Pusia seems to excel in obsessive behaviour very overtly is my arrival home. It's not unusual for Pusia to fall into a deep sleep when I leave for work and not stir until I get home some eight to ten hours later. My neighbours have suggested that she may be depressed by my absence but in all likelihood the truth is that she's a cat and, well, cat's sleep during the day.

     On hearing my car arriving home Pusia appears at her cat flap. We have devised an intricate system of escape and evasion that Pusia uses as she pleases. Her cat flap is positioned at the top of a ladder in an upstairs window. She's free to come and go at will.

Pusia has an intricate system of entry and exit to the house!

     Coming and going at will is exactly what she does. This means that she is not housebound during my absence. Mostly she chooses to remain indoors but on the odd occasion that she needs to pee or pooh then this is her route. I know she does this because at the time of writing she has resolutely refused to use her indoor litter trays for over four months. That's another obsessive behaviour pattern for a different  discussion entirely!

     When I arrive home, however, Pusia immediately descends the ladder and in my hallucinatory existence I imagine that she greets me with some delight. Her response invariably comprises going to the front door and whining at me to open it for her! This never changes. Cat flap, ladder, front door! 

Confidence Tricks

     The thing about having me at home is that it gives Pusia a sense of security. As long as she knows that I'm there then she'll venture far and wide around the area. I'm surrounded by fields and meadow so it's quite an adventure. It's also an incredibly important job in her eyes. She has to patrol the territory, repel impostors and keep the local wildlife in check. There's a never ending 'To Do' list requiring her attention. And if you've read Rich Cat Poor Cat then you'll be aware that there's always someone waiting to step into Pusia's shoes!

Repelling boarders is a never ending task!

     For Pusia to feel really confident that things are as they should be she's developed various little routines. She may be happy enough to leave the house by the cat flap but she has devised countless ways of connecting with me when I'm around.

Opportunity Knocks

     The most impressive trick came as quite a surprise. I was lying in bed one weekend and there was a "Bang! Bang! Bang!" on the front door. We don't get post on a weekend in Ireland so I guessed it must be something important to warrant delivery on a Saturday. Maybe there was a neighbour in distress! Perhaps my presence was required somewhere urgently!

     I pulled on my robe and in a weary early morning state of confusion I dragged myself downstairs. The closer I got to the door the more urgent the knocking became. Crikey! I thought. This must be a matter of life or death!

     Strangely, I couldn't see a silhouette through the glass as I was expecting. I opened the door to take a look around but no one was there. As soon as the door was little more than a few inches wide, however, Pusia happily trotted past me at ankle height into the kitchen.

     Assured that she had gained control of the situation again she calmly took up a position in the sunshine from which she was able to ignore me. Situation normal.

Teaching Me a Lesson

     Pusia has now done this with some regularity whenever I'm at home. I don't think she does it when I'm out. No one has seen her banging on the front door in vain. If, however, I see her disappear through her cat flap while lying in bed and hear a banging on the front door moments later then I know what she's up to.

     It's not uncommon for Pusia to do this several times in a row. Having let her in she'll trot upstairs only for me to hear her knocking at the front door once again within seconds. It's her way of controlling the situation and gaining certainty.

     I think that's what I take from all this. We can't control things, really, but we can gain a degree of certainty by exerting influence on known variables. I don't begrudge Pusia any of this fun. It makes her feel secure, I think, and if I do conclude that she's somewhere on the autism spectrum (probably mild to moderate in my experience) then this is a necessary part of her ritual. You should hear her going into meltdown when things don't pan out!

     They're only small things but they mean the world to her. I'm now looking for a few small things I can also do that give me that stability too! I'm sure with a little tweak here and there I can change the world around me...

     Are cats on the autism spectrum? Probably, yes. But then, who isn't to some degree?