The majority of “autism parents” I run into want to fix their autistic child with ABA or having them mask. This is usually achieved by operant conditioning, positive/negative reinforcement, etc. As an autistic veterinary technologist, I noticed that Jackson Galaxy from “My Cat From Hell” has a different approach when he works with cats and their guardians. I know cats are different than people. The way he works with them should be how parents should approach their autistic child.
Jackson Galaxy is a cat behaviorist (I know behaviorist but stay with me) who is called when cat guardians are at their wits end. He comes to inappropriate elimination, fighting cats, scared cats, etc. The cat guardians almost always have the approach of changing the cat. Jackson quickly lets them know they are very wrong.
There are cats that hide under beds and act like prey. He does not really work with the cat. He works with the guardians on how the environment is not appropriate for the cat. Instead of changing who the cat is, Galaxy tells the guardian exactly how to change the environment so the cat feels confident. Something he calls cat mojo. He has the guardians build shelving for the cat the climb on. When the cat has an area of the house to call their own, they are happier and do not hide. This “changes” the cat but they are really accommodating the cat. After this change, the cat is not hiding anymore and has a much more confident demeanor.
A parallel to this is accommodating the autistic in their own home. If the autistic is overwhelmed by certain lights, get rid of those lights and change them. If the autistic needs sensory toys, get them sensory toys. You are not changing who they are as a person by using conditioning but just simply accommodating. Another example of accommodating an autistic person is not bringing them to a grocery store that causes extreme sensory overload. If this person is your child, use a delivery service or leave the child with someone you trust. This simple act will be appreciated by your autistic loved one.
Another example is when he is called to a home for a cat where that cat is not urinating in the litter box but right outside the litter box. The litter box has a lid. This same cat is always hiding under a bed, in a closet or behind a sofa. This cat is frightened but was not always like this. When Jackson comes to the home, he talks with the guardians about what is going on in the home. The first thing he tells the cat guardians to do is to bring a cat to the vet. The urine test revealed that the cat has crystals in her urine. This solved the urinating on other surfaces but not right outside the litter box. Jackson tells the owner to take the lid off the litter box and have more of them around the house.
On Jackson’s next visit, he sees there is some improvement but the cat is still urinating in front of the litter box. The cat guardian does have a few more litter boxes but they all have lids. He sees that the cat is looking for attention when the cat would hide from everyone during the previous visit. The cat has been on prescription food from the veterinarian and has been feeling better. He notices the lids on the litter boxes and take the lids with him when he leaves. On his third visit, the problem is solved.
A parallel to this is when a child pulls on their ear when their ear hurts. Some parents would tell them to stop. They would tell the ABA therapist to show them how to make them stop. They would call it an “annoying tic.” The simple answer is to take the child to the doctor. Most likely, they have an ear infection. If the child is non verbal, learn how to read body language and give them different means of communication. There are letter boards, picture cards, AAC, sign language and much more. Accommodation is what autistic people look for, not conditioning and conversion therapy that most autistic children have to deal with.
Do I think cats and autistic children are the same? No. Upon watching the methods of accommodation that Jackson Galaxy teaches the guardians of these cats, I do see there is a lot that parents can learn from this cat behaviorist. I do think his title of cat behaviorist is misleading. He teaches cat guardians to accommodate their cats so everyone in the home is much happier. If parents would simply accommodate their children, everyone would be happier in that situation too.