It’s often said that Autistic people tend to be cat lovers. (Although I don’t know of any survey showing we’re more likely to like cats than allistic people are.) Of course, people of all neurologies like cats because they’re elegant, affectionate, playful or cute. But these are some of my ideas about why cats could have a particular appeal for Autistic people.
I’m not sure of the idea that Autistic people relate to cats because they’re loners. Cats, as well as autists, often seek out and enjoy the company of humans and cats. But cats can become stressed when living with too many other cats, which is probably something Autistic people can relate to.
Nonhuman animals in general give us easy, straightforward companionship. Spending time with a nonhuman animal can bring relief to those of us who need to be with other people but are confused, or treated badly, by humans. Nonhuman animals accept us as we are, and are not nasty to us, and don’t say things they don’t mean.
Cats are often compatible with our sensory processing. Cats tend not to be loud or smelly like other nonhuman animals can be, so they can be a good companion species for people with intense perceptions of sound and smell. Also, one way cats show their affection is by ‘kneading’ – pressing their paws up and down on someone’s lap with claws digging in slightly; kittens do this to their mothers’ bellies when they suckle. Humans often push cats away when they start to knead, which I think must be a bit upsetting for the cat, but autists with low pain sensitivity probably don’t feel the need to do this. I find kneading very relaxing. It’s like being massaged and the gentle pricking of claws feels refreshing. And stroking a cat and hearing him purr is like a calming stim.
Cats don’t like eye contact either. To cats, staring is a threat, and they will break off eye contact to relieve tension. I reckon this helps Autistic people bond with cats, because even if we don’t know not to stare, we’re less likely to look into their eyes anyway, and are less likely to be bothered if a cat doesn’t look at us. But an uninformed allistic person’s attempts to make eye contact with a cat could feel threatening to her.
Traits that are seen as negative in Autistic people are seen as positive in cats. It’s seen as fine for cats to go alone and quietly engage with their own interests, but often less so for Autistic humans. In particular, when Autistic people are described as aloof it has negative connotations, but when cats are described as aloof it’s said admiringly. So cats could make us feel better about ourselves.