Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Advice sought for teenager wth autism who has cat obsession

My son turns 14 in March and is in his second year of homeschooling. We are doing the homeschooling during the Middle School Years. He is considered high functioning with deficits in comprehension, social cues, idioms and obsessions. For about 17 months now a former feral cat from outside has been inside. This is because he broke a leg and I invested a lot of money in this cat.

My son is fixated on the cat - considers the cat his best friend. The minute the cat wakes up my son is right there following him around. In the morning the cat goes in for about 15 minutes since my nonverbal son on the spectrum needs to catch a bus and gets up earlier.

He follows the cat around the kitchen when they retreat from the bedroom. He gets on his knees and rubs his face on the cats face. Yesterday I caught him with his cereal bowl on the floor and milk container being held for cat to sniff. He tells me that he was showing the cat his breakfast.

For dinner I allow him to eat on the couch since other son touches food, stands at the kitchen island watching you eat, makes noises and is loud. So to keep the peace he eats in the living room. This is usually the time the cat wakes up and is sniffing the plate. Tonight my son could barely move on the couch because the cat was lying down and he did not want to disturb him.

The latest accommodation my son has made is to put the volume on low or mute so that the cat is not disturbed and to use the closed caption. When the cat is sleeping my son looks lost, aloof and sullen because he seems to have nothing to do or he is crying because he thinks he hurt the feelings of the cat. When I bring up this is a cat he says I don't know if the cat has a memory or not. Seems my son feels bad that he yelled at the cat once and wants to make sure the cat is ok.

This is beyond my comprehension. We have books galore on cats and they do not seem to be helping. He is in a rut and cannot get out. He will talk randomly about the cat or other animals like I have a clue what he is talking about. It is this cat 24/7!

I try not to make a big deal about it since he is here day in and day out doing homeschooling with numerous breaks to pet the cat, play with the cat, feed the cat, blah blah blah.

If something were to happen to the cat I believe he would go ballistic and need to get counseling. If his brother were to do something to the cat I would have to protect my son. My nonverbal son runs throughout the house plus the cat does this several times a day. An accident is waiting to happen.

My son is not interested in music or sports. He hardly plays his games anymore and books he reads is on cats or the drawings are of cats. I recall reading over the years how parents have some sort of system in place where the child on the autism spectrum can only speak on a certain topic so many times a day. I am thinking this would be good, but then I feel I need to compensate since he is home schooled and not going anywhere or connecting with other kids.

We cannot do functions in the afternoons due to the bus and my other son. The same thing with weekends. He thrives at the summer autism daycamp and has many friends there, but they really do not do well on the phone.

Is this just teenage angst or an obsession that needs to be modified? Today when driving another Mom home from a meeting she told me that she was considering finding high school kids to play with her son and paying them. I thought the idea was interesting and said we could post on craigslist. Our sons were in Kindergarten together but they are at opposite levels of development.

I need to motivate my son. We plan on going to the Zoo next week. We usually do a visit once every month if possible.

Would some sort of system where he can only talk about the cat certain amount of times per day, or at specific times and then the spending time with cat - does that need to be adjusted?

Maybe this is depression or just hormones and he can only relate to the cat at this point in time? I am open to ideas and suggestions.


Happy Elf Mom (Christine) said...

Idea. Your son would probably understand the need to be left alone. Maybe your cat needs some down time alone in another room for about four hours after breakfast (or whenever). It might help a *little*.

My older son G will be 14 in April, and his obsession is catching Pokemon things and training them etc.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you could try using cat time as a reward system for doing other things you want him to do. Maybe create a social story so that he understands that cats need alone time. There's a great book called My Kitty Catsberger (i'll tweet the info to you) and it talks about all the ways that Aspies are like cats. But it does give an idea about how they may not always want to be engaged with someone.

Limiting the 'cat time' in some way is probably a good idea. When your other son is out, can you get your teen out to distract him? Not clear on the logistics.

You might also point out that the cat is a living thing and will not live forever, just to prepare him (obviously in a gentler way than I just said). I wouldn't worry too much about the cat getting hurt - they're pretty resilient.

There's a positive way to look at this - he's showing empathy and caring for another creature. I'm thinking there must be lots of teachable moments thee, including respect for others' need for space.

I'll keep thinking on this.

mama edge said...

You see obsession, I see (REFRAME) opportunity! The good news in this is that your son is learning some vital things about empathy, emotional connection, and friendship from this four-legged friend. When my kids got a dog at their dad's house, I expected Rocky to be pretty oblivious to it, since his first and only love is his DVD collection.

Also, you can totally use the cat as a teaching tool while you homeschool. Incorporate cat facts into his writing, math, reading, etc. Make cat-time a reward for completing other non-cat tasks.

As for the perseverative topic-talk, I've had limited success with, well, limiting it. I can make my son stop talking about DVDs, but I can't make him stop thinking about them.

Good luck!

Maddy said...

Yes it's hard when they don't talk much and then when they do talk it's all about one subject / repetative / cyclical.

We're just moving into this area of limiting the time when the given subject can be discussed so I don't think I can help much there.

The obsession whatever it is, around here, is often a displacement activity for some other angst that's worrying them. Finding out what that underlying issue might be can be very no I don't have anything to say to help, but I'm on the same page.
Best wishes

Anonymous said...

I found that Nigel focused less on his obsessions when I enrolled him in a once-a-week social skills class. We wrote it into his IEP, which he still has even though I've been homeschooling him for the past year. This way he gets out of the house and interacts with other kids in a controlled (supervised) environment, and it has helped immensely in him not being so obsessive about things.

Bonnie sayers said...

Thanks for the comments and feedback. Nick was in a social skills class few yrs ago, these places stop their services at age 12 or 13, and it was babyish for my son. We stopped after one year.

I forgot to mention some other things:

1. Whenever I go out he reminds me at the door to say good bye to Junior (cat)

2. Junior will rub against my leg when I come back and get cat food ready. Nick seems jealous of this and has said several times why doesn't Junior do this to him. I suggested he feed the cat, has hard time opening flip cans.

3. Sometimes he will be crying and I when I push for why he says he wonders if the cat would have been better off staying outside. This usually when Junior is running from window to window to see outside feral cats, they are from the last litter. Those same cats pushed his sister out of our yard.

He follows this cat around. He even makes forts for the cat with the Toobeez play tubes.

Anonymous said...

A thought on hiring high school students to play with your son: You might consider a posting for college students if you have a college nearby. Most psych students are dying for some hands on experience, and would probably come play with your son in exchange for a recommendation letter at the end of the year (and perhaps a slice of pizza every once in a while). ;)

hellokittiemama said...

I don't really have any advice for you other than to say we deal with this on a slightly different level. Alex is obsessed with cats but it is PRETEND plush cats more than our real cats that he takes it all out with.

My initial thought is that he is lonely and the cat is a friend, the fact that the cat is a friend and he cares for the cat (even to an extreme) is a real big deal though so I'd probably be careful with limiting the cat. Maybe a rule that when the cat is sleeping that means to go do some other favored activity like the video game, reading, etc.

Are there any social skills groups or sports leagues like we have ("challenger" bowling, etc?)

Irene said...

Wow! I know you probably don’t feel very lucky at the moment from the sounds of things but I’d like to expand on the comment made about the teachable moments available here…

When any child presents an obsession or intense preference for something there are usually positive ways to use this to expand knowledge and to build in successful feelings.

Since you don’t mention that your son has scars or stitches, I’m going to assume that Junior (cute name – does it have meaning?) is not adverse to your son’s affections. For this reason, I say go for all of the teachable moments you can that pop up and build in some planned ones.

Locate some images of cat faces and what they are saying when their ears are back or their fur all bristly. You may already have them in one of your books. Then compare that to human faces and non-verbal communication. Perhaps some simple drawings or photos of faces and you can compare to yours and other family members’ faces?

What does a cat do or look like when it feels anxious? What about when it’s relaxed? What does your son look like when he’s anxious or what about when he’s relaxed. What does it feel like to be anxious? Can your son learn more about controlling other intense moods by relating them to Junior?

I think you also hit upon the idea of teaching about responsibility but ran into a snag with the can – perhaps some moist food in a pouch or he can refresh the water while you do the can. Perhaps Junior can unload the dishwasher with your son’s help?

My 15 year old son with autism has Mick. Mick is my canine son according to Red. Mick is a genius and totally “gets” Red and the whole autism factors. When I can’t motivate Red, Mick usually can. Mick translates for me and sometimes for Red. Mick gets grounded sometimes or put in time out but truly only when he’s chased one of the cats or gotten into the garbage.

We had an adult with Aspergers Syndrome who stressed to please not use talents or obsessions (that don’t harm anyone) as manipulative tools against people with autism, especially withholding the use. She stressed that it feels like the worst abuse possible to inflict. Temple Grandin echoes this advice and suggests instead to, nurture obsessions as possible career options.

Start asking yourself, “What would Junior have to say about ____.”
Or “What else can Junior teach my son about life?” As you focus on these questions, you’ll be amazed by the numbers of teachable moments that pop up. Anatomy, health, and sex-ed (thinking about all the feral cats outside and appropriate teen-age boy behaviors that are acceptable in public and those that are not) are possible topics Junior can teach.

Maybe Junior has memorized his multiplication tables and can teach your son? I know this sounds like I encourage delusional thinking but for Red, Mick and me it works wonders.

Red is also very grounded in reality when I ask him to be. There are hundreds of conversations where Mick is clearly created but I can also tell Red that I need to have just him with me and he understands and Mick is out. Red knows that Mick is the dog brother and not real in spite of his pretending otherwise. Thank goodness!

Good Luck Bonnie!

Anonymous said...

This may be out on a limb, but maybe a "class trip" to a local vet's office? Maybe if you know or can find a vet who you can explain the situation to and who'd be willing to spend some time with your son talking about cats and what they like/don't like, etc. Or as he gets older, maybe the vet could use some help (with your supervision even) an hour a week doing something at the vet's or at a local animal shelter.

As for feeding, maybe you can open the can and cover it wtih plastic wrap so your son could feed the cat when its time.

Good luck!

Osh said...

Another book "All Cat's Have Asperger's Syndrome" might be a good tool as well...

Evan really just obsessed like this with tornadoes and I was able to tell him that he could only talk about them during tornado season after a bit...then it was a countdown to tornado season, LOL...and we had a party the first day the sirens were tested.

Good luck!

Unknown said...

The cat obsession IS great! It has so much room as an emotional learning tool. I would get another cat!

~Zurama Arencibia Nuñez~ said...

I don't know what to tell you. Mickie is obsessed with one DVD in the DVD player, even though he changes the Chanel and just stairs at a fuzzy screen, but you can't take out the DVD, cuz he goes ballistic. i have no clue, why he does this. At least he is nice to the cat. If something happens to the cat, find an identical cat.

Goddess said...

My son is a 'scheduler.' He does occasionally develop these fixations too - some last longer than others. We've found that scheduling the time for him to indulge his fixation keeps him focusing too much on it to the detriment of other things. Keeping the schedule, and allowing him to select how the schedule is set, seems to give him a sense of control and keeps him calm.

Elizabeth Channel said...

I like the ideas about incorporating the cat with school, ie research etc. I wish I had more ideas for you, but I know you'll find some great ones that work. You always do!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like me. I like to follow my cats around and pet them all the time too and I always say "good-bye" to them when I leave the house. There are other things I talk about though so maybe I'm not quite as obsessed as your son is.

Anonymous said...

I see a great opportunity with this cat thing! You can incoporate cats into math, history (cats in Egypt and how they were helpful during the Plague), and also use the cat time as a reward system.

I say build on his obsession, and try to get him to branch out his obsession with this ONE cat into felines, in general. Maybe talk about how the cat told you it was lonely and wants a kitten (to have a back up - in the case that anything happened to the feral special cat). Take him on a field trip to see the cat adoption day at Petsmart and stuff like that. Maybe he will be a vet or vet tech or animal rights advocate! You never know!

DJ Kirkby said...

My son is much younger but he is obsessed with one of our cats too. Mind you she is with him every moment so she can't mind it too much.

Operation Fuzzy Mice said...

Hey! I'm an Aspie and I have a houseful of cats. :D And I do that thing with getting down on the floor with them, rubbing whiskers, etc. It's kitty body language. :D I'm obsessed. My undergrad research is about cat hoarders.

I agree with all the above on your son's obsession and making the cat a part of the schooling routine. I wanted to add, you say you are thinking about going to the zoo. That would be a great time to introduce your son to different types of cats, the big cats, maybe comparing them to Junior.

Someone also mentioned getting another cat. Do you have females among the ferals outside? Maybe there's a female outside that is pregnant, you can bring her in so her babies will be safe indoors. Having a litter is a great math lesson also, you can try and figure out how many kittens a cat can have, say, in one year, and why that might be a problem. Anatomy lessons can come up when it's time to spay and neuter them, or even during the pregnancy, if the cat is tame enough to allow feeling her belly for kicking. That's also a good opportunity for talking about when touching someone is appropriate and when it isn't. (Use the cat's own language. Does she stretch out so you can put your hand on her belly, or does she growl and swipe her paw? Relate it to human girls.)

With the cat food and ankle rubbing, try opening the food and then handing the food to the son and see if Junior rubs his ankles since he's holding the food. Or, just start the pop-top and then let son finish pulling it back.

With the upset about his having yelled at Junior once, cats do have memory, but they also forgive. Can you relate this to a time when son experienced someone yelling at him that he later forgave? With the napping on the couch, get his curiosity going. Have him try to get up while the cat is napping, just to see what he does. If the cat does become disturbed then he can sit back down. He may need to wait a moment before sitting back down, the cat might stretch but then will immediately go back to sleep. Wait and see what he does.

Anonymous said...

My son is 12. We have 2 cats, but he only obsesses over one of them. She was a feral cat that was found abandoned by a creek at a park outside of town. When she was found she had worms really bad and we couldn’t get her into the vet for weeks (she’s really lucky to be alive at all). Having worms so bad stunted her growth, so at 18 months old now she only weighs 3 pounds and still looks like a kitten. Since we took her in my son has gotten increasingly more obsessed with her. If she stays out at night, he has a hard time sleeping.

Last week he asked me if I could put pictures of the cat (just the one) on his notebooks so he could see her when he was missing her at school. After I put the pictures on his notebooks he said it’s mostly helpful, but sometimes it makes him sad to the point where he starts to cry because he’s worried that some day she won’t be around anymore.

Last night when I was tucking him into bed I told him, “I love you”, and he said, “I love you too”. Then I told him, (and this was probably not the right thing to say) “I probably love you more than you love Nala (the cat)”. He told me, “probably, but if Nala died I would probably kill myself so I could be with her.”

He has a history of depression and he just had a dosage increase on his antidepressants. He talks very candidly about his feelings, and I track his moods from daddy to day, so I really don’t believe that he is depressed. I truly believe his comment was more about his obsession with the cat. I read this thread hoping to find something helpful, but I feel more at a loss than I did before. I feel like his obsession is truly getting out of control!!!

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