Ellen France, 32, Hatfield, Herts, explains how her furry friends changed her son's life...

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I know what you’re thinking – rats are vermin. They live in sewers, spread diseases…

Not exactly house pets.

Well, I’ve had 10! I bought my first rat Sophie six years ago, when I was pregnant with my second child Ronnie, now 5.

Rats are so gentle and tame, and make great pets. So, I got more – before long, I had Doris, Emily and Rosie. Sadly, they died after 2 years. So I got Betty and Milly in March 2015.

My first son Haiden, now 11, was never really interested.

And Ronnie hardly looked up from his books. By 18 months, he could count to 20 and was already learning shapes and colours.

‘We’ve got a little Einstein here!’ I laughed to my hubby Michael, 33.

But then, at his two-year checkup, the health visitor mentioned autism.

‘Don’t be silly,’ I said.

But, weeks after he turned 3, Ronnie was diagnosed. Meltdowns were common, and he’d lash out, get over-excitable.

When he was 4, he started going to a school for children with autism. But, though Ronnie was really bright, he wouldn’t interact with others.

Then in February this year, my poor rats died within a few weeks of each other.

Was it worth getting more?

‘Can we get a dog, Mum?’ Haiden huffed

But with Ronnie’s autism, it’d be too much. And I had my third child Lorelei, now 3, too.

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The next month, I visited Raindrops Rat Rescue. There were four gorgeous little rat girls – albino, brown-and-white, Siamese, one with half a tail…

‘One for each of us,’ I told the kids.

They hadn’t been interested before, but now they fell in love! I kept Lulu,a Siamese. Haiden took brown-and-white Pearl, Lorelei had the half-tailed Gypsy.

Ronnie was given the albino. He called her Diamond and really loved her.

The rats were hand-reared, so were even gentler –confident and tame. They loved Ronnie picking them up.

‘Pick up with two hands,’ I warned. ‘And don’t squeeze!’

Ronnie was thrilled to take full responsibility for Diamond.

And, if he was ever having a meltdown, I took him to feed the rats. He’d calm down at once.

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We have a pen set up in the living room and Ronnie climbs in with the rats!

Lorelei even lets him put them in her dolls’ pram!

‘Pick up with two hands and don’t squeeze too tight,’ he repeats to himself.

Since then, I’ve joined Facebook groups for other rat owners.

When I told them our story, so many people messaged me, sharing their experiences.

They said they found rats quite therapeutic, too.

Some people think I’m disgusting for letting rats near my kids.

But pet rats are cleaner than guinea pigs – and you can teach them tricks!

Our little band of ratties have really helped Ronnie. He’s starting to come out of his shell.

He talks more to folk, too.

There’s still a long way to go, but his Diamond in the rough has helped change his life.