Autism, Animals, and Making Sense Out of Senselessness

by Kat Kidwell

A photo shows four-year-old me in pink overalls staring out through the bars of a puppy pen, my fingers pawing at the wires with a big grin. Everyone thought it was cute. I’d just known I’d love the feel of getting trapped in a tiny cage with other animals. I hated open spaces. Hanging out with these dogs behind bars felt like a secure place to me.

When I was little I overheard and read debates like this: “Do animals serve a purpose to us? Do they have value?” I couldn’t form an answer because this seemed too inherently obvious to me to need reasoning: I needed animals in my life. I wasn’t diagnosed with the autism spectrum disorder called Asperger’s syndrome until age 16, but I’d sensed for about a decade before that I could end up getting some sort of “autistic” label, since spoken English and most social norms felt weird and annoying to use. Having animals in the world made me feel safe because I felt like I could communicate with them in ways I couldn’t with people. So I learned from beasts. I’m grateful for it.

One of the first jobs I created for myself involved finding connections between animals and humans so we could all communicate. I was six. I received a few magazines in the mail that taught kids about animals, so I thought, why not make my own? Kids my age, much less adults, never seemed to understand animals the way I did. You couldn’t convince me that animals didn’t speak as well as humans. I think I had this conviction until my teen years. Humans speak many different languages, so how would we know that animals didn’t speak just a language we hadn’t translated yet? I spent a lot of time trying to work our whether different species each spoke their own languages or if all nonhumans could communicate. Our family’s dog and cats sure seemed like they could.

I tried making my own magazine based around one of my favorites, Ranger Rick, designed to teach young kids about wildlife. To help all my readers feel included and accepted, I wrote a short story that a cat could read on its own, featuring subject matter felines would appreciate: a lesson on how to hunt turtles. I’m pretty sure my attempt to write it in an inventive language cats could read failed, but it felt revolutionary at the time…

I lost interest in reading for a while as I got older, mainly because there weren’t enough animals in the books we had to read in class. It took me a long time to learn to relate to human characters. People who adored animals were people I admired, since I could count on them to understand how to love and defend anyone.

On the funnier side, our parents once took us to a science museum in Boston. I got scared the moment we walked into a robot room. There was a humanoid robot standing there, speaking to us, metal guts showing. I feared it would suddenly lash out and try to eat me. Then I saw a robotic gorilla, and I felt safe because animals were harmless. (Behind a wall, I witnessed a whole band of robots playing musical instruments. I also felt safe with them, because I already knew that anyone playing an instrument wouldn’t hurt you, either.)

All sorts of animals made good companions and protectors. I took horseback riding lessons, partly for this connection and partly because I could never run a mile as quickly as my school wanted me to, but I wanted to feel the freedom of going fast. I still feel safer around horses than I do near cars or bikes. I bought my first pet Madagascar hissing cockroach, Paula, in fifth grade. She fascinated me. She was very calm, didn’t make noise, and crawled on my arms gently.

What really made me think I might be of a nonhuman species was being eight years old and told I’d need to miss class sometimes to attend speech therapy. That was when I got really confused: Wait, I know people think the way I pronounce words is funny, but why am I the only one who needs this therapy? How does everyone else learn to speak? Up until I was about ten, grownups sounded like incoherently chattering cartoon rats when they spoke to me, especially in loud rooms. Real-life cats, dogs, and even insects made more sense…usually.

I got used to people and the way they talk more as I started living as a musician. I still prefer communicating what’s most important to me more through song than through speech. Until high school, I always thought singing was its own distinct language that just happened to borrow patterns from spoken languages. Now I know the power and voice I felt in music was real, and I won’t let anyone else convince me that music has no meaning. It’s the same sort of understanding I had about animals. They are inherently necessary. I don’t need to explain. I just need to live in a world where I can continue to celebrate them.

Few tunes ever enraptured me as much as Blitzen Trapper’s “Furr” did when I heard it that first time. Its story is about a man who leaves society for several years to live, literally, as one of the wolves. He returns six years later, meets a girl and forms a family, but can’t shake the memory of what he experienced in the wild. That song gives me hope that our animal connections may always be understood and acceptable.

All in all, humans don’t always make sense, the cats and dogs we live with can look rather senseless, and it’s all fine, because we still know how essential we are to one another. No individual living thing of any species totally makes sense! And that’s why I finally learned to enjoy the company of them all.

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