Imagine for a moment a person who has grown up in a family where they only ever had pet dogs. Their friends and neighbours had pet dogs… all different breeds, colours and temperaments, but still, fundamentally… dogs. They all went to the dog park together every afternoon and always had a raucously good time. They had never, ever, ever seen a cat. Not once.
Then one day they stumble upon an adorable looking creature that is cute, furry, has a black wet nose, four paws and whiskers and for all intents and purposes, looks exactly like the type of friendly, willing to please dog they had known and loved all their lives. Its tail is waving to and fro in what is perceived to be a welcoming gesture so they go over, ruffle up its soft fur and attempt to roll it over to scratch its belly, anticipating their affectionate gesture will be delightfully received. Only it’s not a dog, it’s a cat, and their interaction is interpreted very differently. Lets just say, fur will fly… and it will fly furiously.
Welcome to the world of a child with Aspergers Syndrome. A solitary cat, surviving in a room full of boisterous dogs. Its every move being analysed, interpreted and modified based on the framework of rules, behavioural patterns and ingrained habits of the canine species. And as a result, being disastrously misunderstood.
Dogs wag their tails as a sign of happiness and anticipation of social interaction. Cats swish their tails as a warning to back off and give them much needed space. Dogs always welcome affection in whatever way it is offered to them. Cats will also offer heartfelt affection but it needs to on their terms, at a time that suits them. Sometimes they just need to be left alone. Dogs depend on your approval for their emotional wellbeing. Cats depend on certain things being in place in a routine that they can depend on, and will then reward your reliability with their unwavering friendship.
Dogs are inherently social. They are pack animals with deeply entrenched hierarchical rules of canine society and as a result are desperately eager to please, and occasionally challenge, the pack leader. As puppies, they will romp and play delightedly with their litter mates until they fall into an exhausted, but happy heap on top of each other at the end of the day. They rarely turn down an offer of affection and will warmly greet their family with furry hugs and sloppy kisses when they get home.
On the surface, cats may seem more aloof, but cat lovers around the world will be quick to tell you they are always keenly observing every detail and will reward those who take the time to understand them with warmth, affection, loyalty and love. Dogs are less discriminating in whom they shower with their boundless love, and this is part of their universal appeal, but it is a trait that cats simply don’t understand … or tolerate. Their love needs to be earned.
Dogs enthusiastically learn new tricks and are keen to show them off to gain further approval. Cats have extraordinary agility and mysterious extra-sensory skills… but will only display them when the circumstances dictate they are necessary. They need to be coaxed out and encouraged or will remain hidden forever.
Cats may not always look you in the eye, but they can see straight into your soul and will quietly commune with you while you process the problems of your world. Dogs will sense your unhappiness but may not fully understand it, so will entice you to capture some of their perpetual joy by grabbing their lead and making you take them for a walk to cheer you up. Their destination may be the same … but their journey could not be more different.
If you whistle for a cat to come to you, try to wrangle a leash onto its collar, drag it outside for a walk and hope it will thank you for letting it romp around the dog park …then you are both doomed to crumple in a heap of confused despair. Simply said, cats are wired differently to dogs. They are not better or worse. Just different.
So if you want to understand my child with Asperger’s Syndrome, try to think of her as a cat in a room full of dogs, and you will be a lot closer to coaxing out her unique gifts, helping her understand social behavior that she may otherwise find bewildering, and maybe in time her gorgeous, eager to please peers will gain a greater appreciation of the grace, beauty and uniqueness that bestows her, just like her feline doppelgänger.
The writer of this post has chosen to remain anonymous to protect the identity of her daughter.
How do you react when you see a child “misbehaving” in public? Do you automatically judge the child’s parenting skills or do you stop to consider whether the child may have a hidden disability?