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The Verdict: Dolphin Assisted Therapy for Autism

Dolphin Assisted TherapyWhat is Dolphin Assisted Therapy?

Dolphin Assisted Therapy, or DAT, is a therapy used to improve speech and motor skills in people with physical and/or emotional problems. It involves one-on-one contact with dolphins. It was first used to treat depression, but is now also used for children with learning disabilities, speech impediments, Autism, Downs Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and other developmental issues.

DAT is a combination of Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy and Animal Therapy and is usually prescribed as an alternative treatment when conventional methods don’t prove effective enough.


What is done in Dolphin Therapy?

Ideally, DAT should start with a meeting with a doctor and thorough health assessments. One-on-one interaction with a dolphin is usually followed by relaxation therapy or a session with a Psychologist. Assessments and supportive psychotherapy continue through the course of therapy, ending with a final assessment and future recommendations for day to day living.

Usually the program is designed to specially meet the needs of your child. Tasks and educational activities may be given in or out of the water after which he/she is allowed to swim with, touch, feed, look after the dolphin and even go for rides.

Why does it work?

DAT is said to be effective because dolphins are sociable, friendly and naturally curious. Interaction with dolphins may help increase a child’s self confidence, social skills, academic achievement and help him/her develop trust. Also, this is an excellent medium for therapy in children because of the entertaining and friendly environment and because it combines both psychological and physical aspects of therapy.

Some believe that the sonar produced by dolphins is what causes improvement in symptoms, but this is a controversial topic. Results also depend on the behavior of the child toward the dolphin and the readiness of the dolphin to participate in therapy.

We must remember that Dolphin Assisted Therapy does not “cure” Autism, or related disorders, but well-structured therapy has shown rapid improvement in symptoms by reducing stress, elevating mood, modifying behavior and improving speech and learning patterns.

Where is it done? Who does Dolphin Therapy?

Dolphin Assisted Therapy can be done in the open seas as well as in dolphinareums, though studies favor the former. The dolphins are specially trained for therapy. At every treatment session the dolphin, the dolphin’s trainer and therapists (occupation, physical, speech and/or psychotherapists) are present. Families are often encouraged to interact as well. Unfortunately, there are some places that offer dolphin therapy, but do not carry it out in a scientific way. So before you choose a center for this therapy, read up about it and find out more about their reputation.

What does research say about Dolphin Assisted Therapy?

Studies have shown significant improvement in children with phobias, stammering, emotional stress, depression and neurasthenia who have had Dolphin Assisted Therapy.

In children with Autism, night symptoms, like sleep disorders, bedwetting, ritual behavior and aggressiveness, showed greater improvement (74.3-88.2% of cases) than day symptoms like auto stimulation and conservative behavior (64.8-82.6% of cases). Children who did “dolphin breathing exercises” have also shown significant improvement in speech.

Does it have side effects? Is it harmful in any way?

Parents may have concerns about the dolphins showing aggressive behavior and the potential for spreading disease. Allergies may not be much of a problem as dolphins don’t have fur. DAT is not safe for patients who get epileptic seizures.

Ethical issues have been raised concerning this therapy as dolphins might be endangered if taken out of their natural habitat, bred in captivity and even hurt due to careless conduct by humans.

It is important to understand that dolphins are wild animals, and there have been rare cases where dolphin have hurt or injured humans. These scenarios are extremely rare in a therapeutic setup because therapy dolphins are usually well trained. Thus it is all the more important to undergo this form of therapy in a good institution.

How much does it cost?

Two weeks of Dolphin Assisted Therapy could cost approximately $7350, though individual sessions are also available at around $250 per session. Costs for hotels, restaurants and travel add to the expense. Most health insurance does not cover this type of therapy.

How long does it take to see results?

Satisfactory effects are best seen in a multi-link system of doctor-therapist-dolphin-patient. The best time period for involvement with the dolphins is considered to be 15-20 minutes once a day. 7-10 days is the usual time for a course of such therapy. The amount of time taken for results to be seen may not be the same for every child.

The Verdict:

Dolphin Therapy may be fun and productive, but it has not been proven more effective than other animal therapies. Moreover, we must keep in mind that dolphins are wild animals, and we may endanger them and ourselves by participating in this therapy. Equally effective alternatives are available at lower financial costs, like keeping a pet, riding and grooming horses, using an assistance animal like a dog, or  participating in therapy sessions by an animal therapist.








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