Yesterday, Caitlin punched one of the cats, Paco, in the ribs, after becoming frustrated. Obviously, this behavior is unacceptable. Paco is as lovable as a cat can be. He's friendly to everyone, playful, curious, and not at all skittish. He's very social. To his credit, he didn't retaliate at all, as one might expect (either fight or flight would be the result in most cases with the other two cats, I would think), but we have a real problem here. Caitlin has to learn to get along with the cats and can't be allowed to think abuse of animals is acceptable.
Caitlin has autism with a language delay. Although her vocabulary is large, she does not have two-way, meaningful conversations. She communicates her needs and answers yes or no questions, but an open question will not work with her. Teaching her about respect for animals through reason simply isn't going to work in her case.
I did some research yesterday and this morning. After encountering absolutely awful things people said about kids with autism, I did happen upon some useful information. There are camps and programs, but they aren't accessible to me here (they are in New York; maybe I can find something in PA, though, given time). The most useful thing I've seen so far is the social story. Creating a social story with pictures about the correct way to interact with the cat and the correct way to handle her frustration seems like it could work.
Another bit of advice was to have rules. Jeanie (my significant other) suggested that idea last night, and the presence of success stories regarding the use of clear, written rules reinforces her good idea. Still another approach that we can use in conjunction with what I've mentioned so far is reinforcement of good behavior. We've been using the promise of a visit to Chuck E. Cheese as a reward for being good all week. Being good meant staying out of the "grumpy chair" at school and listening at home, but we can't let abuse of the animals slide at all. However, the all-or-nothing reward approach doesn't do anything to reinforce all of the good things she's done this week. She attended Jeanie's son's IEP meeting, where there was a room full of adults--a situation where she doesn't normally do well. She behaved admirably. She has been doing her shower on her own--turning on her own water, checking it, washing her own hair and body. She has finally brushed her teeth willingly, without a fight. She is doing very well in school, and has even received a reward from her principal for it. All of these good things should certainly be rewarded immediately. I think reinforcement of these good behaviors will encourage her to follow the rules and behave, as well as trying to do more things idependently.
Finally, a chart might help, or maybe a calendar. Every time she demonstrates good behavior or does something new independently, she gets a sticker or a note on the calendar that says what she did and when. She will get a mark on the calendar if she just gets through the day well, even if she doesn't do anything new or out of the ordinary. If she does something bad like hitting the cats or refusing to listen, she will get a negative mark. If she goes a whole week without getting negative marks, she gets a bigger reward, like going to Chuck E. Cheese or Guitar Center (she loves Guitar Center). A park with a playground would be good, too.
I am hopeful that all of these ideas in combination will get her to stop hitting--or even trying to hit--the cats. Any advice from anyone who has been through a similar situation would be helpful.