How a Highland cat is helping a boy with autism

Billy the cat has been a huge help to autistic boy Fraser.
Billy the cat has been a huge help to autistic boy Fraser.
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Today’s been a good day. Fraser has come home from school and is lying contentedly on the carpet telling his cat, Billy, all about it. His little sister Pippa is bouncing on the bed while mum is trying to talk on the phone. Outside, the light around Balmoral is fading but, inside, all is well with the world.

Six years ago, the picture couldn’t have been more different. Louise Booth and her husband Chris had just moved to Scotland from Hampshire with their newborn baby. Chris had taken a job working as an electrician for the Royal Family on the Balmoral estate, and both hoped the move north to new surroundings would be a fresh start.

A longed-for child, Fraser’s birth had been traumatic, and it must have felt, at times, as though neither mother nor baby would ever recover. Fraser screamed continuously; nothing seemed to please him. Booth was utterly drained, physically and emotionally. This wasn’t how they’d planned things at all. However, the change of scenery only served to highlight her increasing sense of isolation and helplessness. “I got to the point where I absolutely hated the peace, the quiet, the nature and the beauty,” she says. “I used to say to my husband when he came in from work, ‘The silence here is deafening.’”

At her lowest ebb, she stood on an iron bridge in the grounds of Balmoral, a river rushing beneath her feet, and thought: “Will anybody care if I throw myself over this bridge? Will it matter?”

From the moment Fraser was born, Booth had felt something was wrong. “The words I’d used at the time were, ‘Something isn’t right. He doesn’t look right.’ But that was completely misinterpreted and I was told to hug him more.”

But hugs couldn’t comfort the constantly screaming child. “When he was a very small baby – around three months old – he couldn’t seem to tolerate any noise around him,” says Booth. “The other thing, I learned through a process of elimination, was that he hated everything in his cot. When you have a baby, you get a mobile and you have toys all round the cot, and gradually I came to realise that his cot wasn’t a happy place for him. I remember saying to my mum, ‘He doesn’t like his mobile,’ and she said, ‘Don’t be silly, Louise, babies don’t have an opinion about mobiles.’ But he hated it. He used to scream when I wound it up and it started to play the music.”

But that was the least of it. As new mothers look forward to each of their child’s milestones – when they first smile, or hold up their head – for Booth the passing months were simply a confirmation that her son had problems. “He didn’t hit any milestones at all,” she says. “It was horrendous. I can remember saying to my sister, ‘I’m not enjoying any of this.’ And she said one of her friends had not really enjoyed her baby being a baby either, that she’d preferred it when they were a toddler. I thought, ‘No, this is more than that.’

“I was probably at my lowest ebb when Fraser was between 12 and 16 weeks of age. Emotionally, I wasn’t coping. There were a lot of lows but that really was the lowest.”

Eventually, health visitors agreed they needed to keep an eye on his development, and he entered the system at around nine months old. By 18 months, doctors were in little doubt: he was diagnosed with autism, further complicated by a muscular condition called hypotonia, which affected his ability to walk and use his hands.

“It’s really young,” she says. “It’s usually between the ages of three and five that they diagnose autism, but Fraser’s behaviour was extreme enough, they felt they should get him in for an assessment.”

The diagnosis was, she says, a “vindication”, a reassurance that she had been right all along, and wasn’t simply a neurotic new mum.

However, while it came as a relief, it was also a bombshell. The family was told, in no uncertain terms, that Fraser would never go to a mainstream school. His behaviour was simply too extreme; his temper tantrums too violent and unpredictable. Even a small change in routine – someone coming unexpectedly to the door, for instance – would throw him into meltdown. The knowledge was a devastating blow for the family.

Then, when Fraser had just turned three, Booth, on instinct, decided to bring a pet into their lives. “I felt Fraser was quite isolated from other children. We weren’t able to go to any toddler groups and he wasn’t really interacting, he didn’t have any friends. I felt if I got Fraser a pet of his own he would, first and foremost, have a friend, and it would give him something to interact with.”

They already had an old, lazy cat called Toby, who kept himself to himself in cosy corners of the house. And since Fraser’s asthma meant he was allergic to dog hair, they opted for another cat – a rescue.

She could hardly have prayed for the difference it would make. From the instant Fraser met Billy – sitting down in the cat’s pen and snuggling up to the grey and white moggie – it was clear the pair had a special bond. “It was one of those things that will stay with me till the day I die. It was unbelievable to see our boy interacting, engaging with something. We could just see the tension falling away from him.

“Straight away, Billy was able to do something I couldn’t do. I didn’t have the ability to make him calm like that. And I still don’t. As much as we’ve come along, the one who still makes Fraser calm when he’s stressed is Billy.”

More than once, Booth has asked herself if Billy, somehow, has a sixth sense. He seems to know, instinctively, when to appear and help Fraser deal with whatever difficulties life throws at him. Washing his hair used to require both Booth and her husband to hold him down while he thrashed around, soaking them both. Until Billy simply came along every bathtime, put both his paws up on the edge of the water, and demonstrated that, if he didn’t mind getting his hair wet, perhaps Fraser shouldn’t either.

And when Fraser couldn’t master climbing the stairs, Billy encouraged him, step by step, by repeatedly backing up, then waiting for him on the landing while Fraser caught up.

“Everybody knows how amazing dogs are – for people with sight, or hearing or learning difficulties – and they’re good to train. If I’d wanted an autism assistance dog for Fraser, that dog would have had to go through a couple of years of training. But Billy hasn’t had a day’s training. Everything he does is on instinct so that, to me, is absolutely fascinating.”

She can’t explain what makes the relationship work – it defies logic, she says. “I wish I had the answer. I’ve thought about it a lot and I think maybe Billy has never had any expectations of Fraser. When he came into Fraser’s life, he was seeing five different therapists, who all required something from him. Chris and I required something from Fraser. But Billy never did. He was quite happy with whatever he did.”

As Fraser has grown and developed – last year he defied the experts’ predictions by enrolling in mainstream school – Booth’s opinion of her adopted home has turned on its head. “It’s really strange how my feelings have changed. Scotland is totally home now – it just took me a long time to settle. It is the most amazing place and I firmly believe it’s a massive factor in how well Fraser has developed.”

That’s not to say everything is perfect. Fraser’s autism means he still relies on routine and has certain obsessive behaviours. “The goalposts change all the time,” says Booth. “You can be going along quite nicely then a curveball comes along and you’re back where you started. But I have got hope and we weren’t given much in the beginning. There was a time we thought he wouldn’t walk so, who knows.”

In October, the elder family feline, Toby, succumbed to cancer. He was 14 years old. And, after a period without a replacement, they decided to get Fraser’s three-year-old sister Pippa a cat of her own too. “Pippa is wise beyond her years,” smiles Booth. “It’s like she’s the elder sister. She absolutely adores Fraser, and she likes Billy, but Billy is Fraser’s cat. That’s what she tells me.

“So we decided we’d get another Cat Protection cat for Pippa – a kitten this time. He’s called Percy and they’re getting on great.”

Fraser’s relationship with Billy, meanwhile, continues to evolve as he grows less dependent on his furry friend. “It’s a different relationship because Fraser isn’t as intense a person as he was,” says Booth. “Now they really are best buddies. Before, Billy was very much like a minder, looking out for Fraser all the time.

“Life before Billy was not fun,” she adds. “There wasn’t much laughter or merriment. I do sometimes have a bit of a shudder when I think where we might be now without him.”

• When Fraser Met Billy is published by Hodder & Stoughton on Thursday, £14.99