Home > Lifestyle > Family > Features
Wednesday September 18, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Wednesday September 18, 2013 MYT 8:57:33 AM
by nick mcgrath
Lorcan Dillon has selective mutism — but just as his family feared he would never be able to talk in public, a cat changed everything.
THE sight of their child beaming from ear to ear would make most parents happy, but when eight-year-old Lorcan Dillon smiles, his mother, Dillon, feels a maelstrom of emotions – even though he tends to produce a smile only for the family’s cat.
Lorcan was diagnosed with the social anxiety disorder selective mutism at the age of three, so when he grins, it masks a complex internal dialogue, one that his mum is always trying to decipher.
“Is he trying to be appealing so he can disarm people,” speculates Dillon, a 45-year-old former midwife, “or is he trying to look happy as a way of alleviating his anxiety?”
Those who have the condition speak fluently in some situations but are frozen in silence in others. An early and competent talker at home, Lorcan’s initial development betrayed few signs of his latent verbal reticence – until he went to nursery, where he simply stopped speaking.
“At home, he has always been very loud and opinionated, so it was a huge shock when he went to nursery. And when we asked him why he wasn’t speaking there, he just couldn’t explain it and kept pointing to his throat.”
Reluctance to acclimatise to nursery education is common in three-year-olds, but Lorcan’s sustained refusal to speak at school worried Dillon, particularly as her eldest son, Adam, had just been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. She says: “Perhaps because I’d read something about it, I mentioned selective mutism to Lorcan’s teacher and she had already been looking into the possibility.”
According to the Selective Mutism Information and Research Association (smira.org.uk), the condition affects more than one in 165 children, and a speech therapist soon confirmed that Lorcan was one of them.
Rather than apply pressure on him to try to find out why he was unable to speak in certain situations, Lorcan’s nursery instigated a play-based plan to build his confidence, and he continued to make gradual progress. But moving up into reception class in September 2009, then into year one 12 months later, reversed his progress, closing the verbal shutters again.
There were also signs that Lorcan was on the autistic spectrum – he disliked physical contact or cuddles, displayed little empathy, tended to take instructions literally and had never told his parents or brothers that he loved them.
Then in September 2010, Dillon’s ageing cat Flo died and the arrival of a new kitten proved an unlikely turning point for the Dillon family. Dillon says that Jess the cat made a difference straight away. “They were drawn to each other. Jess was this new, fascinating ball of fluff with big blue eyes and she would respond and meow to Lorcan and there was a huge link.”
Almost immediately, Lorcan began to cuddle Jess – soon renamed Jessi-cat – and, perhaps more remarkably, began to demonstrate a previously unseen protective empathy.
The pair were soon inseparable and, six months after her arrival, Dillon heard her son voice three words she never thought she would hear him utter.
“They were playing with the cat’s favourite toy when Lorcan leaned over to her and just said, ‘I love you, Jessi-cat,’ then added, ‘You are my best friend.’ It was the first time he had ever said those three words. I shed a tear and was absolutely overjoyed.
“People ask me if I’m upset that he said ‘I love you’ to a cat and not to me, but my hope is that he might learn to do that with people, eventually.”
Although Lorcan is still not communicating as freely at school, his confidence has flourished as his relationship with Jessi-cat has blossomed, and Dillon, who has given up work to concentrate on seeking the best care for Lorcan, is stoic about her son’s uncertain future and its long-term impact on the family.
“I’ve no idea what will happen until he hits puberty. He could be OK and just ever so slightly eccentric, or possibly not. We just don’t know. But I’m not going to wallow in misery about the situation because it’s not about me, it’s about Lorcan and what choice have we got?”
Lorcan has been silently engrossed in his iPad while his mother has been speaking. When asked a few simple questions, he remains politely silent, unlike Jessi-cat, whose intermittent meows continue to punctuate our conversation.
So what would happen if Jessi-cat were no longer around to help nurture his emotional development?
“She’s only three,” says Dillon, “so we’re hoping Lorcan will be an adult by the time she dies.” – Guardian News & Media
Jessi-Cat: The Cat that Unlocked a Boy’s Heart by Dillon Dillon is published by Michael O’Mara.
Tags / Keywords:
Lifestyle, Family & Community, mutism, parenting, cat
Copyright © 1995-2013 Star Publications (M) Bhd (Co No 10894-D)