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Debunking Dolphin Therapy For Autism

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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128 comments

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11:16AM PDT on Apr 27, 2014

autism and dolphins are connected in ways you can't or won't imagine

5:32PM PST on Jan 28, 2013

Hi, i am unsure as to how i stumbled upon this article and id like to say that although there are not multiple studies that empirically validate the benefits of dolphin-assisted therapy, there are some nonetheless. The Aquathought foundation did dolphin therapy research through Living from the Heart, The Dolphin Experience, in the mid 1990's and they did indeed find that there was a significant change in brain wave pattern activity, reflective of an induced relaxation response. After a dolphin therapy session, there was an observable period of hemispheric synchronization, which is a rare neurological state that creates ideal conditions for new learning to take place. Furthermore, they found that dolphin's sonar is significantly stronger than ultrasound used in medical diagnostics equipment, and that when a beam of sound was focused on a person, it generated enough energy to produce a phenomenon called cavitation, which showed that dolophin therapy has a direct effect on cell and tissue structure.

http://www.aquathought.com/idatra/symposium/96/sonophor/sonophor.html

I personally worked with an autistic kid from Los Angeles, that after his first dolphin therapy program a few years back, he began speaking for the first time. He attended our dolphin therapy program last September, and he had a new breakthrough: touching and hugging. So while the mechanism of action for human-dolphin interactions continues to be a subject that needs objective research, it is just as unscie

5:23PM PST on Jan 28, 2013

Hi, i am unsure as to how i stumbled upon this article and id like to say that although there are not multiple studies that empirically validate the benefits of dolphin-assisted therapy, there are some nonetheless. The Aquathought foundation did dolphin therapy research through Living from the Heart, The Dolphin Experience, in the mid 1990's and they did indeed find that there was a significant change in brain wave pattern activity. After a dolphin therapy session, there was an observable period of hemispheric synchro

6:49AM PDT on Jun 16, 2012

There are a lot of purveyors of false hope. With such high fees, they s/b required to offer a money-back guarantee.

3:27PM PDT on May 11, 2012

I'd expect anyone on the autistic spectrum whose main problem is with spoken words to find some time with whatever animals they like to be worthwhile.

3:48AM PST on Dec 29, 2011

For years we have been searching for an outcomes based software program which will help us organize and collect data. I envision every physical therapy clinic using such a product in the near future. physical therapy billing

7:29AM PDT on Sep 28, 2011

Noted!

3:47PM PDT on Aug 26, 2011

thanks

5:28PM PDT on Jul 31, 2011

Forgot to add I tried to swim with wild dolphins whilst sailing down the coast of Mexico many years ago. Whilst we were moored near land 3 dolphins used to come every evening and swim around the boat then stay awhile and go. As I had always dreamed of swimming with them one evening I entered the water quietly and slowly as they circled, unfortunately, they decided they did not want to swim with me and left - oh well, it was not to be but at least I tried.

5:18PM PDT on Jul 31, 2011

I believe from all accounts that swimming with dolphins is an uplifting experience, as long as they are free to choose whether or not to swim with you. I understand the lady in the article saying that from her point of view, claims that such an experience can be seen as a cure for autism may be greatly exaggerated, and are certainly open to question. What I do not understand is, what seems, her absolute refusal to even entertain the notion of taking her child for such an experience, not as a cure, but purely as fun. Of course, her child could not do it daily but if it is not meant to be a cure anyway what is wrong with the child having a treat?

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