Learning About Social Skills and Friendship From His Cats

It took four years and a pandemic but the Cold War between our hyperactive and loud five-year-old son and his skittish fur siblings has thawed.

T and our two cats, Kyrie and Lanaya, had a rocky start. We adopted the cats, both at 1 year old, in 2015 and T came into our lives and in our tiny condo in 2016, at 15 months old.

The two cats hated him at first sight. They found him loud and hyperactive – and stayed under our bed all day, only coming out at night or when T was in daycare/school.

Even though we’ve lived in our larger home for a year now, it is still very much an under-the-bed existence, which has increased exponentially with T and us in lockdown.

Social skills are important developmental milestones for kids with special needs.

For kids with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, of which T has an at-risk prognosis for, being able to relate to others and understand social cues are often a challenge.

Among my worries during this pandemic is T’s lack of interaction with other children and missed opportunities to build social skills and friendship during these key developmental years. This anxiety is exacerbated when the hubby and I have busy work days and T is left to his own devices.

During moments of boredom and loneliness, T would go to our guest room and lie down on the floor at the entrance, resting his cheek on the floor so he could have a good look under the bed, where the cats would sit quietly, glancing back with apprehension at their little tyrant.

Then I had my eureka moment: the cats would teach T about social skills during the pandemic.

And so our daily routine began. Every day, T and I visited the cats every few hours. When I didn’t feel like it, he’d plead with me, “Just for one minute. It will make me happy!” How do I say no to such a heart-wrenching guilt trip like that?!

I’d lie on the floor across the length of the bed as T’s human shield – he insisted, after Kyrie hissed and swatted at him – and T would lie behind me and poke his head over to look at the cats.

Immediately, Kyrie would growl and hiss at him, while Lanaya laid next to him making nervous grunts. T would hiss back and bang the floor with his hands.

I’d repeatedly tell T to stay calm and be gentle or the cats were not going to be his friends. But my advice would be deafened by his loud hyper rebuttals.

This would go on for a few weeks. Eventually, T learned to simply peek his head over my leg quietly and to look at the cats and tell them in a soft, gentle and quiet voice, “Hello… hi guys.”

Then T learned to bribe the cats with Whiskas treats. He’d throw the treats under the bed nervously, afraid that Kyrie would charge towards him. Lanaya was a sucker for treats and she’d eat them all, including the ones for Kyrie.

T finetuned his strategy and targeted his charm offensive towards Lanaya, eventually getting her to come to retrieve a treat.

One day, she smelled T’s hand and licked it. T got so excited that he went from 0 to 60 in no time, scaring Lanaya back under the bed and breaking whatever progress he had made.

The hubby had the brilliant idea to take out the cat toys that he had put into hiding after T came into our lives: a red pointer light and a cat wand. 

With T next to me, I waved the cat wand. Like instinct, Kyrie came rushing out and swatted at it. He realized T was in the room and retreated under the bed.

I then turned on the pointer light and Lanaya started swatting at the red dot until she saw T and also retreated.

While the victory with the toys was shortlived, it sparked a new angle for T to pursue. Several times a day, he would ask me to go see the cats – with the cat wand in hand. He started by sitting on the bed, trying to lure the cats out with the wand. It worked at first until the cats caught on.

Then T would lie on the floor and poke the cat wand under the bed, swatting the cats. I would get angry and tell T to stop and pay attention. “Do you not see Kyrie and Lanaya going away? That means they don’t like it.”

Every day, I would emphasize to T a few key words – because it’s important to keep instructions short and clear with kids like T: stay calm, be gentle and be patient.

The breakthrough happened last weekend.

On Saturday night, it was way past T’s bedtime and he was beyond tired. He insisted on playing with the cats. I took the cat wand away after he refused to stop poking the cats under the bed with it. He sat on the ground and cried.

Then Kyrie came out from under the bed and started meowing at him. T stopped crying. I whispered to him to stay calm and to extend his fist out – like I’ve taught him the past few weeks.

Kyrie slowly approached him and sniffed his hand and then rubbed his head across T’s palm.

T opened up his hand and proceeded to pet Kyrie on the head.

In anticipation of T revving up from 0 to 60, I told T to stay calm and be gentle. And he listened. T and Kyrie played together for a few minutes and then I told T to go to bed.

The next morning, I thought the breakthrough would be shortlived, but again, Kyrie came out from under the bed and allowed T to pet him and play with him.

And this scene repeated itself every day this past week.

Last night, the hubby, T and I were lying on T’s bed watching videos on our phones when Kyrie came in the hallway and meowed at us. We convinced him to jump on the bed and T gently petted him.

This breakthrough is such a big deal, because it teaches me that while it sometimes takes double the effort to teach T something, he can and does and will learn.

And just like you can teach a dog new tricks, you can teach our T and his fur siblings how to co-exist and to even get along with each other.

School is going to be out for a while longer, so the cats will continue to have to be T’s main source for friendship and interaction outside of the hubby and I.

There will no doubt be more twists in this saga, but I can only expect things to be mainly positive from here on out, as T matures into the wonderful caring little man I know he will become.

11 thoughts on “Learning About Social Skills and Friendship From His Cats

  1. What a wonderful step in the right direction!!! Isn’t it the most amazing feeling when the little things we take for granted happen to our loved ones? They aren’t little for them they are huge. He is a lucky boy to have you both and you are both lucky to have him!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. 🙂 You are correct in that it is the little things we take for granted… that often frustrate us when T seems to not grasp right away… but that also blow us away when all the pieces finally click in his head. For all the hard things during this lockdown, these positive moments more than make up for them! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Andi! It’s very heart filling to see the progress. 🙂 I hope it gets to the point where they can interact without parental supervision!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, that is great! What a breakthrough! In our house, I felt the same with Declan and our pets. He can be a little rough at times and the animals will flee, but in general, he likes talking to them and asking about their days. He even used his book fair money last year to buy a book about cats so he could read to our rescue cat and tell her all about her. I am so happy for you and T that he has a relationship with the cats. That is really great!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Robyn! Pets are so great for kids. Ive often felt that if we didn’t have the cats already, I’d love to get a therapy dog for T but I’m glad it all worked out with them.

      Thanks for the great idea about reading to pets. I saw a short while ago these videos with kids reading to dogs in shelters. T is not quite fully reading yet but this might be a fun way to motivate him to practice reading more by reading to the cars. I will try it and see how it goes.

      Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

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