Debunking Dolphin Therapy For Autism
Near the top on the list of “therapies we consider ludicrous” for our 14-year-old autistic son Charlie is dolphin therapy. You will read different claims about “dolphin assisted therapy” and autism if you look on the Internet: Living From the Heart Dolphin Experience says that some quite high percentages of autistic children who receive dolphin therapy enjoy benefits lasting up to two years, though it should be noted that the benefits (longer attention spans, improved emotional control and improved speech communication skills) attributed to dolphin therapy are the same benefits that are often noted for other therapies for autistic children.
As a Los Angeles Times article points out, scientific studies about dolphin therapy — which can cost $2,200 for a five-day program at Island Dolphin Care — are few and far between. As Lori Marino, a neuroscience and behavioral biology researcher at Emory University in Atlanta, says:
Japanese researchers published a small study in 2001 suggesting that dolphin therapy can somehow treat eczema, but that finding stretches credulity, Marino says. Another study that year from Australian researchers concluded that swimming with dolphins could improve feelings of well-being while reducing anxiety, but the findings were based on questionnaires given to 168 healthy people who had paid for their adventures, which predisposed them to see the investment as worthwhile. A more plausible study published in the British Medical Journal in 2005 found that dolphin therapy relieved depression symptoms for a group of 13 adults. Marino critiqued these and other studies in a review article published in 2007 in the journal Anthrozoos.
According to Marino, the appeal of dolphin therapy is based more on mystical beliefs than on any real results. “Dolphins are the ultimate New Age animals,” she says. But dolphins don’t feel any spiritual imperative to heal humans, as far as anyone knows. Marino adds that the ultrasound that dolphins use to navigate is far too weak to have any medical effect. “People say that swimming with dolphins is fun, but it’s entertainment, not therapy,” she says.
Indeed, some of the claims about how dolphin therapy “works” sound decidedly on the side of pseudoscience. Macy Jozsef, executive director of the above-mentioned Living From the Heart, speculates that “dolphins help synchronize the left side and right side of our brains, and nothing else does that”; dolphins are also thought to use their “natural ultrasound to zap tumors, heal muscle injuries and stimulate the brains of disabled children.”
We’ve heard about “swimming with the dolphins” almost as long as my son’s been diagnosed with autism (since 1999). We’ve never considered it. I’m quite in agreement with a point that Jim Ball, chairman of the board of directors of the Autism Society and a behavioral specialist with a practice in Cranbury, NJ, makes in the Los Angeles Times article:
It’s perfectly plausible that some autistic children would become unusually lively and engaged around a dolphin, Ball says, but it’s hard to say that the emotional boost would last. “It’s not like they can swim with a dolphin every day,” he says.
Raising an autistic child is very much an experience of the day to day. We’ve certainly spent our share of funds on therapies and medical care for Charlie. In fact, he’d probably enjoy swimming with dolphins as he is a super swimmer in general (and once swam his way out to where I sighted some dolphins, which was not exactly advised). But he needs activities that can be part of his everyday routine, like bike riding (which he does everyday with his dad). Sometimes it can get a bit exhausting to keep hearing about therapies for our son that are clearly not practical based on his everyday needs.
Another question is whether dolphin therapy any fun for the dolphins. At Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, Florida, six dolphins live in a “penned-in canal connected to the ocean.” I’d be about as comfortable seeing dolphins recruited into being “therapists” as I would watching them jump through hoops at the likes of Sea World (sorry if you’re a fan — I did enjoy the shows there and at Marine World when I was very young)– the only place I’d like to see dolphins is at home in the ocean, swimming far out past the waves on the Jersey Shore.
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Photo by DocklandsTony