Dogs, Dolphins and … Elephant Therapy for Autistic Children?

There have been numerous reports of the benefits of therapy dogs for autistic children and some have sung praises for having autistic children swim with dolphins. In Thailand, elephant therapy with, yes, elephants has been found to help some autistic children. Nuntanee Satiansukpong, head of the occupational therapy department at Chiang Mai University, first thought that elephants might be beneficial for the sensory issues that many autistic children struggle with.

Here’s a description from CBS news:

The kids scrub and soap the elephants’ bristly hides, play ball games with them, and ride them bareback, smiling.

“Chang, chang (Elephant, elephant). Children, have you ever seen an elephant?” the group sings, clapping hands to the traditional Thai nursery tune and hugging the elephants’ trunks. Disco-like, Nua Un bobs her head and sways….

Wittaya Khem-nguad is the founder of the project. So far, claims of the therapy’s effectiveness rest on the experience of only four autistic boys. Rebecca Johnson, who heads the at the University of Missouri, says a larger sample size of participants needs to be studied.

More about elephant therapy for autistic children:

Each activity is designed to improve specific skills. The children learn to follow step-by-step instructions by drawing up shopping lists and buying food for the elephants — bananas, sugar cane, corn, sunflower seeds – at a mock store with real money. If the elephant rejects the food, they return to the store for an alternative, which teaches flexibility. Feeding the animals and brushing 7-year-old Nua Un when she obligingly lies on her side for a bath can help the kids overcome an aversion to sticky and rough textures. Playing games, with the elephants kicking and offering balls with their trunks, fosters group activities.

Riding, besides sheer fun, requires specific sequences of mounting and commanding while addressing poor balance and posture. And elephant-themed art activities — painting and making mobiles, paper lanterns and mosaics — spark the imagination.

“The elephant is such a big stimulus it can keep the attention of an individual longer, and since it is such a wonderful animal bonding can occur,” says Nuntanee. “If we can drag the children out of their own world they will be better,” she says.

It is perhaps no surprise that the elephant’s very size has at least something to do with the therapy’s success for the four boys who have done it. I think it goes without saying that the sheer mass and weight of elephants attracts the attention of many of us; who wouldn’t watch themselves a bit in their presence? Furthermore, certainly for a child with disabilities who has lots of challenges in his or her every day life, being up high astride an elephant could be an affirmative, powerful sensation.

My own son Charlie, who’s on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum, likes to keep a respectful distance from animals. He has been especially wary of dogs, who always seem to note him in a crowd: Something about the way Charlie holds his body, watches what is around him and the sounds (non-verbal hums snd such) which he sometimes makes attract the notice of animals. Charlie is more wary of smaller animals (such as smaller dogs) rather than larger ones, perhaps because he can better keep track of where they are relative to him, so perhaps a pachyderm would not bother him as much

Due to logistics and quite a few other concerns (safety for one — I have a feeling there would be some insurance costs), it seems a bit unlikely that elephant therapy will get too far in the US.

(But, you never know.)


Photo of an elephant at the Crocodile Zoo by trevorsoh.

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Julie Botsch
Julie Botsch1 years ago

Thank You!

Deborah C.
Deborah C.4 years ago

Thanks for article.

colleen p.
colleen p.4 years ago

so all elephants, all the time, for every reason are beaten like that? methings more people need to investigate and not rely on shaddy circuses.

Christine S.

I hope people do not seek out elephant therapy, knowing how violently elephants have been separated from their mothers and beaten with bullhooks until they submit. I am all for dog and horse-back riding therapy, as dogs and horses are more naturally bonded with people, and there are plenty of shelter dogs and unwanted horses that could be saved and then trained to be therapy animals.

Wioletta S.
Wioletta S.4 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Judith Corrigan
Judith Corrigan4 years ago

I hope the elephant is well treated.

KK D.4 years ago

Thanks for sharing as i hadn't heard of this type of elephant therapy for those on spectrum.It does make sense though as the textures and sensations would be incredibly interesting to be sure.My own son has done quite well with our dog and cat.He enjoys taking care of them too and they help bring him out of his shell.

Jos� Mar�a Olmos Sant

Poor elephants but thath´s good for the autist children

John P.
John P.4 years ago

I have a friend who runs a similar operation with rescued horses in the Dallas, TX area. She gets amazing results!

George May
George May4 years ago

this is NOT good news for elephants....