Dolphin Therapy: The Playful Way to Work toward the Next Step: In This 12-Part Series, EP Explores the Benefits of Aquatics Therapy and Recreation for People with Special Needs

By Wermer, Maaike | The Exceptional Parent, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Dolphin Therapy: The Playful Way to Work toward the Next Step: In This 12-Part Series, EP Explores the Benefits of Aquatics Therapy and Recreation for People with Special Needs


Wermer, Maaike, The Exceptional Parent


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More than 400 children with a physical and/or mental challenge visit the Curacao Dolphin Therapy and Research Center (CDTC) for dolphin-assisted therapy every year. Dolphin therapy appears to be the right approach for many children. With the help of these special and very social animals, it is easier to make contact with the children. It motivates children to learn new things in a playful way. The results are stunning, and parents are very enthusiastic about the program.

Swimming with dolphins is an important part of a unique therapy program, which is given on the Caribbean island of Curacao. Here a team of professional therapists, in shorts and T-shirts, treat the children according to the principles of behavioral therapy and operant conditioning, which involves rewarding positive/wanted behavior. The children participate in a two-week program, with two hours of therapy each day. The key to the success of the program? After hard work with their personal speech therapist, physical therapist, or psychologist, they enjoy swimming with their dolphin in the Caribbean seawater. The children discover that the prior exercises they participated in during speech therapy or the coordination skills they worked on in physical therapy all of a sudden have meaning, because they improved their ability to play and interact with the dolphins. The fun and relaxation that swimming with the dolphins offers them motivates the child to work towards the next step.

Seven-year-old Finn is a happy, blond-headed boy from the Netherlands. Finn is participating for the second time in dolphin therapy. Due to problems before birth, Finn's left cerebral hemisphere did not fully develop, resulting in physical and cognitive disabilities and autism. His treating physician predicted that if Finn was not able to speak and walk by age five, little further progress could be expected. His parents found out about dolphin therapy and decided to give it a try. At age six, Finn could not speak or walk. After one year of dolphin therapy, Finn started to walk and speak. Finn's father relates, "This year Finn, who is participating in dolphin therapy for the second time, even started a little chat with a boy in our hotel swimming pool. That was such an incredible, special moment. Dolphin therapy is the perfect treatment for our Finn." Finn's parents, their friends, and relatives were so enthusiastic about dolphin therapy that they started an organization in the Netherlands to support families with children with a disability in their own area.

Marco Kuerschner, chief therapist at CDTC, explains the origins of dolphin--assisted therapy: "In the 1970s, Dr David E. Nathanson, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Florida, was the first to recognize that the attention span and concentration ability of children with autism and Down syndrome increased positively when the child was around dolphins. In the 1980s, he conducted several scientific studies. His work has shown that children with special needs learn up to four times faster while being with dolphins. Families who have attended dolphin-assisted therapy report that their children experience long-term results even after the therapy ends. Since those first studies, dolphin-assisted therapy has developed in many different places around the world. CDTC was established in 2004 and has a strong collaboration with Dolphin Aid, an organization that sets guidelines and standards for therapy quality and animal husbandry in dolphin-assisted therapy. By working with Dolphin Aid and meeting their standards, CDTC has become one of the leading dolphin therapy facilities in the world."

Marco is committed and dedicated to the concept of dolphin-assisted therapy and enthusiastically talks about the passion he has for this therapy modality: "At CDTC, we focus on the capabilities of a child instead of the disabilities. We create a positive environment of unconditional acceptance for the child, where personal development is encouraged. …

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