Iris (6) compared to Monet, sold art to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and has a therapy cat called Thula

When Iris, who has autism, started to paint she also started to hold her mum’s hand for the first time

Six-year-old Iris Grace, who has autism, has an extraordinary talent to express herself through painting. When Iris met Thula, a Maine coon cat in 2014, Iris started to open up and and communicate with the pet in a way that she hadn't done before.


Six-year-old Iris Grace Carter Johnson struggles with social interactions, but loves looking at her Facebook page, where she has almost 200,000 fans. In real life, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt can be counted among her fans, having recently purchased one of her watercolour paintings.

She doesn’t speak in full sentences or attend mainstream school, but her artwork has attracted the attention of art collectors and has been compared to the work of French impressionist Monet.

Iris, who lives in Leicestershire, was diagnosed with autism when she was a toddler and since then her mother, Arabella Carter Johnson, has given up her job as a wedding photographer to care for and homeschool her. She believes the interest in Iris’s artwork is endlessly positive.

“I think it does wonders for autism acceptance and for people to not be embarrassed about saying their child is on the spectrum, or people who are adults on the spectrum, being able to be proud and say they are. There is quite a lot of stigma around it,” she says.

Spreading awareness

Iris Grace

“When you first get the diagnosis of autism, the doctors can be very depressing about what they think is possible for the child.

“They’ll say they’re autistic, they may not talk, they may not socialise, they may not be able to live independently; everything seemed to be focused on what they can’t do.

“It just didn’t seem like they looked upon any of the promise she showed; they just saw them all as negative things,” she says.

Iris’s diagnosis brought some peace for her mum, who had found the endless sleepless nights and lack of interaction from her daughter tough.

“I found not knowing excruciatingly painful. It was long nights sitting there with her so awake and not knowing why or why everyone else seemed to be meeting up in cafes and having a great time. It seemed like everyone else was moving on and I was just stuck there in that newborn stage.

“She wouldn’t respond to her name and she seemed to not like anyone coming up to her or trying to play with her,” she says.

When she and her husband, PJ, received the diagnosis, Arabella says that pain was turned into a determination for them to find a way to help Iris, despite the lack of encouragement from doctors, and the hugely underfunded therapies available to her.

“The worst thing is if you don’t feel anything and you just accept what the doctors say and you think that’s that. I think parents need that drive; parents have to be very motivated and do most of the therapies themselves at home and really create an environment at home that’s going to support the child.

“Our house still has trampolines, and it’s still an environment where she can get out that extra energy that she has.”

Starting in the local preschool didn’t work out for Iris, so her mum took her out and began trying to cover the preschool curriculum at home. Art therapy was something they tried not specifically as a therapy, but as an activity from the curriculum, but it had a big effect on her behaviour.

“Iris loved it and it was an incredible change. She started to hold my hand, which she had never done before, and she would take my hand up to the sink and ask for more water that way. Not with her voice at first, just with gestures. She started looking into my face and my eyes more, and she was just more open.

“It was like we had found this key to her world. She wasn’t that active before, but with painting, she was dancing around the kitchen; she was happy, she was smiling. You suddenly saw this completely different child; it was amazing to see her open up like that.”

Therapy animal

Though she had never considered that a cat could be a therapy animal, they later got Thula, a Maine Coone cat (a very dog-like cat breed) who quickly became Iris’s best friend.

Arabella describes their meeting as old friends reconnecting, as if they had met years ago.

When sleepless nights persisted, Thula would go up to Iris’s bed to comfort her and help her drift to sleep.

When Iris is painting or playing, Thula sits patiently watching, sometimes mimicking Iris’s movements. Bathing and having her hair washed was a weekly battle for Iris, but Thula now sits in the bath with her to calm her.

Iris used to paint topless as she hated the feeling of tight clothes, and through Thula constantly snuggling up to her, Iris now will wear clothes with less objection.

The biggest development though, came through Iris constantly interacting with Thula; she’s now more social and is speaking more often.

“Iris has become much more confident and more social. She’s happy for friends to arrive to the house, come for a cup of tea. She’s started to communicate what she wants a lot more; last night she asked for toast.

“She’s expressing these things now, and that started with Thula.

“She’d say ‘More cat’ and ask her to follow her, so it all stemmed from there. Before that, Iris’s vocabulary was there, but she was never using it.

“She would never say what she wanted, which was quite frustrating. Life is getting easier now that that language is developing.”

One of the big struggles that Arabella feels isn’t discussed is the difficulties parents face. Through writing the book, she realised PJ’s struggle, being out at work during the day when Iris was really connecting only with her mother. “He had been so brave and had not made a big deal about it, but I think you’ve just got to believe this period will pass, and the child will learn how to manage more relationships.

“To begin with, they’re learning how to be social and that’s why they tend to link onto one person, because it’s so difficult for them. That gradually changes.”

Whether it’s what’s next on the homeschooling curriculum, or what therapies they use, Arabella says her main takeaway from her experiences so far of parenting a child on the spectrum is to go with the child’s interest rather than forcing them to fit in.

“You have to focus on them and the love you have for them, because nothing comes easily.

“Everything is hard work . . . So many of the therapies were just trying to make them conform to what we think a child should be like.

“I just wanted to open up this idea of how you can see the brilliance in these children and then, if you support them and go with it, you’ll start to see these changes.”

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