Working with the shelter cats she loves has helped Ashley, a student at NECC, an autism research and education center, learn important lessons about life.
By Vicki Croke and Christen Goguen
We’ve come to the New England Center for Children, a private, non-profit autism research and education center to see one of the students.
Ashley is 21 and here as well as the group home where she lives, there are no pets. Yet everyone describes Ashley as a true animal lover.
We could see that from the presentation she gave in class:
Ashley: “It’s about the Barack Obama family. Every family deserves a dog…”
As good as the talk was, we felt we got a better sense of the real Ashley at the MetroWest Humane Society in Ashland, one of two shelters where she volunteers.
Ashley: “Ready to go in?”
In fact, she was almost like a different person there among the cats.
Ashley: “Casey! You came back! Hi! I love you!”
Ashley is social and outgoing in general, but in the company of cats? She is the embodiment of joy.
She’s full of compassion.
Ashley: “It’s okay baby. He didn’t mean it. He just is so scared.”
As we walk through the shelter, she greets each cat like the old friend he or she is.
Ashley: “This is Splash. This is my Splash. Hi baby!”
Her only problem here is preventing herself from getting TOO attached.
Ashley: “You’re never supposed to kiss the cats. I fall in love sometimes, I do. But, you’re not supposed to.”
Ashley has had to make her way in the world and it hasn’t always been a smooth ride. But she’s worked hard.
At the shelters, Ashley’s learned responsibility—getting to work on time, following rules, and doing chores that aren’t much fun.
Vicki: “So what are your jobs here?”
Ashley: “I do dishes and I do a lot of them.”
Vicki: “Is that your favorite part, the dishes?”
Ashley: “I don’t really like doing it, but I have to. And Wendy will be like ‘can you do this?’ and I’ll be like ‘Aaaahhhhh!’
But most of all, it is the company of animals that has given her a boost.
Some new studies are just catching up with that notion, showing, among other things, that pets can help kids with autism increase social skills, including improving their ability to comfort those in distress.
Lauren Carr, the program specialist at the center, says animals are central to Ashley’s progress.
Lauren Carr: “She clearly has a love for animals. Because of who she is, she doesn’t necessarily recognize a lot of the social cues that you or I would recognize. I think in working with her relationships with the cats and with MetroWest and teaching her what the different cat body language is, she’s been able to incorporate some of that into some social cues that you or I would pick up on but she can’t pick up on.”
Wendy Frost, the shelter attendant, has seen the change firsthand.
Wendy Frost: “It took a while to explain to her their behaviors, their body language. When to stay away, when to not. But she’s come a long way.”
Ashley gets it now. In fact, she can even explain what some of those signals are.
Ashley: “Puddy has those eyes, like, you could tell that he’s gonna do something. You see his eyes!”
In Ashley’s view, the role of animals in her life is essential:
Vicki: “What do you think life would be like without animals?”
Ashley: “Oh, not good. I cannot live without it.”
Vicki: “I feel the same way about animals.”
Upstairs at the shelter, we discover a miracle. One that occurs on a regular basis, but a miracle nonetheless– a new cat has arrived.
Ashley: “I want to play with her so bad! You know, I know my rules though!”
Wendy: “Anyone in a cage, typically we don’t let her open it to play with them because they’re stressed. But anyone who is out, for the most part, can be played with. Sometimes they can be stressed out when they’re in the cage so we don’t like to take the chance.”
Anything that separates Ashley from the cats is difficult for her to contend with. When cats are adopted…or when they die.
But there are always ways around the cage problem—Ashley can play with Poppie if Poppie isn’t in a cage.
Ashley: “Can you let her out PLEASE?”
Wendy: “Okay, what’s the rule?.. Don’t pick ‘em up, okay?”
Ashley: “I promise. I very much promise. I would never let you down. If I did it’d be an accident. Come on Poppie!”
Throughout the day, Poppie stays on her mind:
Vicki: “What is it about her that you love so much?”
Ashley: “I just like her color, I like her meow, I like her talking, I like her personality, I like that she cleans herself ‘cause she’s very thorough about it. I don’t know. Just everything!”
Ashley’s human friendships here are solid too. Wendy and Ashley have an easy rapport.
Wendy sees something spectacular in Ashley:
Wendy: “She brings light here. Light and love. She’s a very good listener. She’s a hard worker. I just adore her.”
Vicki: “She obviously adores you!”
Wendy: “Wednesday’s are a good day. What the cats give to us, she gives back to them.”
It’s a very powerful gift…
Produced by Christen Goguen. Originally appeared on WBUR’s The Wild Life.