For Iris Grace Halmshaw, the world was a lonely place.
The autistic five-year-old struggles to speak, is unnerved by other children and is frequently thrown into panic by the world around her.
She fills her days with painting, and is so talented that her works sell for as much as £1,500.
But nothing could quite relieve her isolation. Until, that is, a cat called Thula came along.
The pair are now inseparable – and Iris's parents credit the gentle Maine Coon with helping their little girl become more tactile and affectionate, as well as influencing her already much-acclaimed works of art.
The home-educated youngster has been producing astonishing Monet-style landscapes since she was three, when mother Arabella Carter-Johnson devised art sessions to help her with her daughter's concentration and speech.
But since Thula arrived, Miss Carter-Johnson and her husband Peter-Jon Halmshaw say they have noticed Iris adding brush strokes which resemble a cat's eyes or nose.
Initially, they thought it was just a coincidence, but now believe Iris is expressing her love for Thula through her painting.
'When Iris is painting, Thula is told by her to 'sit cat' if she jumps up on to the table,' said Miss Carter-Johnson. 'She stays there watching Iris with great interest, occasionally wanting to play with the brushes, but mostly just patiently watching.'
And the pair's bond doesn't end there. Thula is at Iris's side for every part of her life, right down to her bathtimes, when she will even share a shampoo and soak. When the family go out in the car, Thula will sit on Iris's lap, and she is more than happy to don her red harness and go for a walk on her lead.
The pair's closeness is having an effect on Iris's relationships with others, too, and her parents find it easier to encourage her to speak when Thula is around.
After researching the benefits of animal therapy for autistic children the couple had tried introducing Iris to horses, dogs and even other cats with no success – but everything fell into place when Thula came to live with the family in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, in February. Within weeks, the kitten was helping to soothe the little girl in times of stress.
Miss Carter-Johnson, 33, said: 'Ever since we came home with this precious, magical kitten, she has been casting a spell over Iris. It was as if they were old friends from the day they met.
'Thanks to Thula, new doorways to communication and emotions are opening and Iris is happier than ever before.'