Friday, May 22, 2015

Cats as therapy: When Fraser Met Billy

Hero helped me read When Fraser Met Billy. Complete with his plush Corgi (this is quite appropriate as Fraser and Billy grew up on the Queen's Balmoral estate).
Companion animals are important to people in so many, many ways. Take Billy Booth, a kitten who was rescued from a deceased estate just in the nick of time (the house was to be boarded up but someone went in to check). Thanks to Cats Protection in the UK, the grey-and-white moggy was rehomed to the family of a three-year-old boy diagnosed with autism. Fraser, born with a range of conditions, barely communicated with a soul, but he took to Billy the moment he saw his photograph. And when the pair met in the flesh, the connection was undeniable.

In When Fraser MetBilly, Fraser’s mum Louise Booth documented the incredible bond formed between Billy and Fraser. And this is not a cutesy-lovey-dovey fairy-tale book about how warm and friendly animals are. You can hear Louise talk about Fraser and Billy here.

In part, it’s a frank, honest and very brave discussion about the impact of Fraser’s condition. Louise describes Fraser’s birth, her experience of post-natal depression and learning to meet Fraser’s very different needs by “trial and horror”.
“Now I was on my own with a baby that bellowed and vomited for twenty four-hours a day, seven days a week. Slowly but surely, my sense of isolation began to deepen.”
Fraser’s autism meant that he was hypersensitive to noises, and prone to meltdowns at triggers that other children might not have noticed. His hypotonia meant that he struggled with mobility and needed splints to walk.

When we think of pets as therapy, we tend to think of dogs. After all, cats tend to be more independent creatures, less sensitive to those around them, limited in their ability to provide any physical form of aid and keen to do their own thing. Certainly as a vet most of my experience of animals in therapeutic roles relates to dogs – though I wonder having read When Fraser Met Billy whether some people are self-conscious about sharing their own experiences with feline friends.

Louise’s account of Billy brings into question all of the above assumptions. At first she was a bit awkward raving about the impact of Billy on Fraser’s world, but Cats Protection had no doubt this was not a one-off. They alerted the Daily Mail, resulting in this article (worth clicking this link for the photos alone).

While n undoubtedly equals one in this case, it’s impossible to doubt the positive impact Billy has had on Fraser – despite one falling out between the pair when it appeared Billy was favouring the kids next door. He sat through some of Fraser’s major meltdowns. He was a calming presence during major life transitions. He allowed himself (literally) to be leaned on by a toddler. Billy even encouraged Fraser to walk up the stairs when no one else could convince him to.

The not-so-explicit storyline is the importance of Billy to Fraser’s family – his parents Louise and Chris, and sister Pippa. One gets a sense that the mere presence of Billy was a much-needed balm.

The photo on the cover of the book, by Daily Mail photographer Bruce Adams, makes for one of my favourite book covers ever, and the story behind it is beautiful. (Louise tells the story of the article, and the process of organising the photographer, in the book. As with everything involving Fraser, it wasn’t simply a matter of inviting a stranger over to take some happy snaps. The idea had to be introduced slowly, repeated, and executed sensitively so as not to trigger any sort of anxiety or meltdown).

This is a beautiful book for anyone with an interest in animals, pets-as-therapy, kids, any parent that has ever had a toddler that has had a meltdown, and anyone working with animals who seeks to better understand the relationships we form with them.

You can see more photos of Billy and Fraser on their facebook page