The Story of a Special Artist (and Her Therapy Cat!) Will Warm Your Heart

A new book about 6-year-old autistic painter Iris Grace celebrates how "different is brilliant."
Arabella Carter-Johnson

Iris Grace is a 6-year-old autistic artist from Leicestershire, United Kingdom, who's become famous over the last few years for her beautiful paintings. She's received international attention for her art, and celebrities like Angelina Jolie have even bought her paintings. These days, Iris paints at home with the support of her parents and the constant presence of her loyal therapy cat, Thula. Last week, her mom Arabella Carter-Johnson, a professional photographer, released a lovely book called Iris Grace that shares their story and many photos of Iris' work. I caught up with Arabella to learn more about Iris' amazing gift and how her painting opened up her world to her parents.

JP: Why did you write the book Iris Grace?

ACJ: The book is a celebration of how 'different is brilliant' and the achievements of our little girl and her faithful best buddy. It documents the journey from the darker days, through her diagnosis to us learning how to connect with her, finding her voice. It's about patience, how communication is not just words, and it is about observation, body language and unconditional love. I wanted to raise awareness for autism and what it is like to live with autism, but also to show people that there can be a future. And a bright one. Obviously the techniques that worked for Iris won't work for every child but I do believe that there is always a key—it is about following the lead of your child.

How did you find out Iris loved to paint?

It was after a disastrous attempt at her going to preschool when she was 3 years old, and we had decided to carry on with her education at home. I had made a list of activities that she would have been trying at the preschool; next up was 'mark making and painting' so she had a try and it turned out that she loved it. It was a massive breakthrough moment for us.

Arabella Carter-Johnson

Why a therapy cat and how did she come into Iris' life? Was Iris particularly interested in cats?

I have loved animals all my life, and in the past I practiced horse whispering and have always had pets around me. So, for me, my first thoughts were about equine therapy and a service dog. Neither of those two were right for Iris—she didn't seem to like horses very much and the dog upset her with its smell and wagging tail. But after looking after my brother's cat over Christmas one year, we saw something special: Iris loved that cat. Then, we went on a search to find her a cat of her own and we heard of a breed called a Maine Coon that sounded perfect: it was confident, gentle, loving, loved water, and wanted to play and be involved in activities.

How did Iris' painting go from casual interest to something that celebrities buy and the world knows about?

I posted some photos on Facebook and former clients of mine wanted me to make some prints. Then a fellow photographer wanted to buy a piece. My husband encouraged me to set up a website for Iris [where you can purchase photos of the paintings] and a Facebook page to raise autism awareness and it took off from there.

Sea Elf by Iris Grace

Do you consider Iris a prodigy?

Many people have called her that, and I agree her talent is outstanding for her age. We are so proud of her, but to me it's not about the prodigy aspect. The paintings are about how they make her feel, how they were a key into her world and they enabled me to connect with her. I wouldn't care if it was trains, insects, Lego, ballet...if it was motivating and special to her that would be as precious.

For others, her art is doing something very special indeed. She has become an inspirational figure in schools recently. Last year, I went to a local school to talk to the students about autism and I took Thula and some of Iris's original paintings. They were an amazing bunch, and their teacher does Iris updates once a week on Friday. It's a mainstream school but in that class they do have a few students with special needs and they proactively promote the idea of accepting difference and anti bullying.

I also had an email from a school in the U.S. who had a class where all the children painted on tables for the morning. They were told they couldn't speak and to express themselves through the art. They wore capes like Iris, too. That one rather melted my heart.

Then recently there has been an extraordinary project I have been working on in a school for autistic children in Canada. The class is made up of eight children all on the spectrum and they have been working on an Iris and Thula theme for a while now. They interview me with all sorts of questions and send videos of themselves for Iris to see. They have done creative writing projects with her paintings and have learned all about her.

Tumpty Tum by Iris Grace

I never could have imagined that Iris and Thula's story would have this effect, with people from all over the world finding peace, happiness, and inspiration in her work.

Iris's paintings are also displayed in hospitals all the way around the world. One in India and another in Malaysia have whole collections along their corridors to give peace and hope to those who are there.

How is Iris doing now?

Iris is doing very well, and she is enjoying her home education, which I teach through topic-based learning that is always inspired by her own interests. She is now reading beautifully but still finds conversation difficult.

Arabella Carter-Johnson

Although she has made massive advances, still every day I work with her so she can manage the world around her. We do sensory play to help with those issues, her O.T. exercises with the therapy ball and trampoline, and she needs to spend some time in the countryside most days. Her autism will always be there but we are learning how to help her and work with her so she can learn, experience new things, and be happy.

What do you see for the future?

We are very hopeful about the future and excited about this year as we plan to go abroad with Iris and Thula; I'm imagining bikes rides along the Amsterdam canals and maybe a trip to Paris. Traveling was always a part of our lives and we feared that was lost when we got Iris's diagnosis, but a lot has changed since that day and now we feel like anything is possible.

Arabella Carter-Johnson

Jamie Pacton lives in the Pacific Northwest where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com and Twitter @jamiepacton.

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