‘How a cat helped my talented, autistic girl’

Iris Grace with her mother Arabella Carter-Johnson.
Iris Grace with her mother Arabella Carter-Johnson.

Local photographer Arabella Carter-Johnson has written a unique book about living with her remarkable autistic daughter.

The book, called Iris Grace, has been published by Penguin and is just out.

Penguin say it’s “a remarkable, heart-warming true story about a little girl with autism and the cat that saved her”.

Arabella, who lives in East Farndon, near Market Harborough, told The Mail: “It was a tough book to write, and had its emotional side for me.

“In a way there were two lots of tears; the first time of course and then reliving events to write them down honestly for the book.”

Iris Grace Halmshaw is now six, and gradually revealing a very bright and unique mind inside the maze of her autism.

As The Mail reported in 2013, Iris Grace’s very different brain resulted in her producing genuinely startling, Monet-like impressionist art from the age of three.

Her art has been bought by collectors from Britain and beyond, including - just last year - the American actor and film maker Angelina Jolie.

“She is able to concentrate for hours on things she’s interested in, and yet finds eye-contact and relating to people, even to me, very difficult” said Arabella (34).

“She can read and has a very good vocabulary, and yet rarely speaks.

“She can take in every detail of a room but is very uncomfortable with people.”

Arabella and her husband Peter-Jon Halmshaw made another breakthrough in their relationship with their daughter when they gave her a cat, called Thula.

“I think it’s because there’s no pressure - Thula’s just happy being round her” said Arabella.

“She became more playful, talked more and became more relaxed socially. Thula even helped at bathtime. All her life, Iris has been fluctuating between loving water and hating it on her body.

“Now Thula gets into the bath with her, and helps distract Iris from her worries about water.”

Arabella and Peter-Jon realised their daughter was different from before she could walk.

“She could entertain herself for hours with her books, but there was no eye contact” said Arabella. “She didn’t even seem to notice me.”

At two she was definitively diagnosed as autistic by a doctor who warned her parents not to expect too much.

And yet, as Iris Grace grew older, Arabella and Peter-Jon realised she was wonderfully different.

“The book is really about our journey” said Arabella, “and how we’re managing gradually to go into her world”.