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Dolphin therapy and its benefits for children


Dolphin therapy is one type of animal-assisted therapy that is claimed to help children with physical and mental illnesses. There are currently many debates and dozens of studies on the effectiveness of this treatment method. In this article, we will try to understand how dolphins can help children.

What is the essence of dolphin therapy?

Dolphin therapy involves a child swimming and playing with dolphins in a pool during several sessions. It is believed that this method has a positive effect on hand coordination and verbal reactions. The effectiveness of the method is also supposedly due to contact with the dolphins and the ultrasound they emit.

Currently, many different versions of dolphin therapy for children have been developed, ranging from simple observation of dolphins by the child to interaction with them in the water. Different specialists have different theories about how children and dolphins interact. The duration and frequency of sessions vary depending on the program. Some therapists conduct sessions for a week, two weeks, or a month.

True or myth?

One of the founders of dolphin therapy is David Nathanson. The scientist never tried to prove the therapeutic effect of ultrasound. He based the effect of dolphin therapy on the assumption that difficulties in learning in mentally retarded children and children with other severe forms of disability are related to difficulties in concentration rather than an inability to process information. “Swimming with dolphins can improve their attention and increase their motivation to learn,” Nathanson claimed. He sees dolphin therapy not as a miraculous cure but as a complement to traditional forms of therapy. (Nathanson et al., 1997).

To prove the effectiveness of dolphin therapy for autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other conditions, Nathanson conducted several studies. In one of them (1997), he compared the effectiveness of a 2-week dolphin therapy with a 6-month traditional therapy. The study involved 47 children with the aforementioned conditions. Before starting dolphin therapy, each child underwent traditional therapy for 6 months. The children were divided into two groups. Group I aimed to improve motor skills, and group II aimed to improve verbal skills.

The results of dolphin therapy for children were very optimistic. In Group I, dolphin therapy for children with cerebral palsy showed positive dynamics of 71%. At the end of the study, the children were able to improve their motor skills. In Group II, 57% of children said their first word.

Despite such positive results, both Nathanson’s and other scientists’ studies are criticized due to methodological aspects of the research. Scientists attempted to dispel optimism, citing that the child simply gained new experience by interacting with a dolphin. It should also be noted that many families came to therapy from different parts of the world. Thus, children gained a lot of new experience: traveling to a new place, staying in a hotel, interacting with other children. All of this could have contributed to improvement.

Despite criticism of the quality of previous studies, Professor Nazaret Hernandez Espejo of the Catholic University of Valencia confirms the benefits of dolphin therapy for people with autism. She published her report in the journal Anthrozoös. “Dolphin therapy can lead to improvements in areas such as social interaction, language and communication skills, as well as reducing behavioral problems and stress,” says Professor Espejo.

Can ultrasound heal?

To understand how dolphins can be used for therapy, and whether they possess this ability in general, let’s turn to physics. Ultrasound is sound waves with frequencies higher than the range of human hearing. They affect the human body with the appropriate intensity and frequency. The mechanisms of ultrasound action can be divided into several types. The main one is thermal action – acoustic energy absorbed by tissues is converted into heat.

Ultrasound has been used in medicine for several decades. Its application is broad, but these properties cannot affect mental disorders or intellectual disabilities. Unfortunately, the influence of ultrasound in dolphin therapy for cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, and other conditions has not been scientifically proven.

Disadvantages of dolphin therapy

It should be noted that dolphins can be aggressive, even towards children. A recent study showed that half of the more than 400 people who worked professionally with marine mammals were injured, and participants in dolphin therapy programs received slaps and bites. Unfortunately, this nuance should also be taken into account when considering dolphin therapy for a child.

Is dolphin therapy worth choosing?

On this question, everyone should answer for themselves.

After years, David Nathanson came to the conclusion that dolphin therapy should be abandoned. In 2007, he published the results of a study that compared the effectiveness of therapy using live and artificial dolphins.

For the purposes of the study, an artificial dolphin was created. The study involved 35 children with various illnesses, including cerebral palsy, autism, and mental retardation. Each child participated in sessions with live dolphins swimming in their natural environment (in the bay) and sessions with an artificial dolphin in a pool. Based on the results obtained, Nathanson concluded that the artificial dolphin was motivated to learn just like a real dolphin. And in the group of children with the most severe disabilities, it even had some advantage.

However, we should not dismiss the idea that contact with animals is beneficial. Whether or not to rely on this method of therapy is up to you.

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