Autism, Cat-munication and Joining

Photo by Jonas Vincent on Unsplash

What do you do when you realize your child has Autism but your research listening to #ActuallyAutistic folks leads you to think that ABA and IBI isn’t a great option for your child? For parents looking for something better, joining can be a powerful alternative.

I participate actively in a number of parenting message boards related to disability, and yesterday we got talking on one of the threads about 9-year-olds with autism communicating with cat noises. It seems that this particular method of communication is more common than any of us thought (given the number of meows, purrs and hisses we were collectively being treated to at the time.) I realized that my now-15-year-old had been one of those 9-year-olds. I know how hard it can be as a parent to not understand why your child is doing what they are doing (and how hard it is a child to not be understood), so I decided that I would do a little bit of an interview with my daughter and my husband (who brought the idea of joining to us in the first place).

I started by interviewing my 15-year-old (T.G.) directly and this is what she had to say:

H: What does a parent of a child who likes to communicate in cat noises need to understand about what that child is doing?

T.G.: They need to understand that different cat sounds mean different emotions, so the child is actually trying to communicate. For instance, a purr is happy, a hiss is unhappy. They also need to understand that maybe it’s uncomfortable, or the kid finds using English physically gross.

H: Can you expand on what that might look like?

T.G.: Maybe the vowel sounds or the way that the tongue has to move to form the consonants just feels wrong in their mouths, or they continue to trip up over words, or they can’t find the words and it’s annoying, so they just find a form of communication that they find feels nice.

H: So it’s almost like a sensory thing for their mouth?

T.G.: Yes. Exactly.

H: What could a parent who cared and wanted to help their child do in this instance?

T.G.: Maybe you could teach them sign language? Because maybe if it’s a sensory thing that could be another form of communication that would feel more comfortable for them to use.

H: So even if they have words it would still be good to learn ASL?

T.G.: Quite possibly, because it’s a different form of communication so maybe it will feel better for the child.

H: So in the meantime, what can the parent do to help the child calm down?

T.G.: You can get down on their level and play cats with them. Make them feel like the way that they communicate is being heard and understood.

H: Why is that important?

T.G.: Because it makes them feel loved and cared for. Sometimes people think, ‘oh, but why would I do that – that’s so weird’ but to the kid it’s perfectly normal and they think everyone should do it. In a confused way, it’s like [to the kid] everyone else uses this weird, alternative communication device.

H: Is there a reason that kids who sometimes speak English would suddenly switch to speaking cat?

T.G.: It might be because they are stressed or overwhelmed. There may be no “plausible” reason that they’re stressed, and afterwards they may not be able to tell you why they were stressed, but there’s generally some sort of trigger and their brain goes ‘ach, ach, ach, ach, ach – something’s going wrong’ so they’re dealing with their brain sending off alarm bells and ringing. Then they don’t have the mental space to think carefully about what’s coming out of their mouth, and so the easier sounds to make are those slightly simpler sounds that don’t require as much thought behind them.

A huge thanks to T.G. for her insights. I also asked my husband (T.R.) – who himself has autism, and was the one to initiate our joining practice by getting down on the floor and joining in with T.G. when she was little. I asked T.R. about that process and this is what he said:

H: How did you know to start joining?

T.R.: I guess it seemed kind of obvious to me. It was what my mom had just naturally done with me as a kid, and then I read a book on the Son-Rise program that gave me a name and a bit of structure to put around why I was doing what I was doing.

H: How would you explain joining to another new parent?

T.R.: Joining is the act of entering in to my kids’ current reality without judgment. It’s not much different than play, but it does require letting go of my own ego, embarrassment, etc. It also requires that I don’t just enter in verbally, but PHYSICALLY into that reality. That’s important. I always crouch down when I’m talking to a kid. I don’t want to tower over them. I want to see them eye to eye – to see the world at their level and honour their perspective. I try to mirror their bodily actions – so I need to be willing to crawl on the floor, roll like a puppy, scamper like a mouse, groom like a cat.

H: Can you explain why? What does that do for a child – particularly a child with autism?

T.R. When we enter into our kids’ reality, when we honour their current experience, it has a powerful calming effect. They receive permission to be themselves. They have the opportunity to interact, connect and communicate with another human being without having to forcefully, manually override their instincts. I assume that if a kid needs to be a cat, there’s probably a reason for that – and I don’t even need to understand that reason to honour it.

All of our bodies contain deep wisdom – including kids’ bodies – as long as we don’t crush them. And when we have a safe environment to let our bodies move the way they need to, then our stress hormones reduce – cortisol and adrenaline go down – so our anxiety lessens.

And that’s really important because we can ONLY learn when we aren’t anxious – above a certain stress threshold, no learning occurs (however much you are teaching) – which is why some autistic kids seem to make no progress. A year of school above the threshold is worth less than a week below it. But when released from anxiety, in my experience autistic kids are insanely fast learners.

Joining isn’t easy – it takes a lot of time, patience, consistency and willingness to put your own agenda as a parent on the back burner to helping your child regulate. It’s not a magic autism bullet – it doesn’t ‘cure’ autism (despite what the Son-rise folks originally said) or take away their quirkiness. That’s not really the point. What joining does do is create self-worth, offer a context for meaningful (and therefore sought-after) relationship, lower stress levels and collectively unleash the child’s natural curiosity and intelligence to grow and develop.

So perhaps the next time you hear a meow, a purr or a hiss, or notice that your little (or not-so-little) kitten (or other animal of choice) starts cat-municating with you, you might get down on their level and start mirroring back what you see.

You might get under the table and rub noises together (like kittens) and crawl around together for a while.

You might notice that they are hissing at something with their back arched and you might get down on your hands and knees and start looking for what might have made them hiss (perhaps something sharp or scratchy, someone coming into their space or someone asking them to change activities right in the middle of what they were doing).

Using as much cat-munication as possible, you might say something like “meow-meow kitty was playing in the sunshine patch. Meow-meow kitty doesn’t want to stop playing in the sunshine patch and go to school. Meow-meow kitty wants to stay and play in the sunshine patch ALLLLLLL day!”

If you do this on the floor, fully physically joined with what is going on in your child’s world they will feel safe and known and precious. This will calm them down. It will not happen quickly. It will not happen at all if you get impatient. But to the extent that you are willing to prioritize emotional regulation through joining, it will make measurable improvements in your child’s capacity to learn and develop and grow.

Would you like to talk more about how to implement Joining at your house? I offer one-on-one and group disability coaching to parents, youth and adults with disabilities. For more information, please check out my coaching options, or contact me for more details.

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