Dolphins, Therapy & Autism

The Beginning of Dolphin Assisted Therapy

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The Beginning of Dolphin Assisted Therapy

Dolphin assisted therapy began in 1973 when Dr. Hank Truby, a linguist and acoustic phonetician who worked with Dr. Lilly and the dolphins for 17 years while they were teaching them English, first took autistic children to meet the dolphins at the Miami Seaquarium in Miami, Florida.

In this first encounter, two autistic boys who usually had about five minute attention spans, began to play with the dolphins. There was a close rapport between the children and the dolphins. While these children ordinarily showed little interest in external things, they showed great interest in the dolphins. The children and dolphins played games for an hour and a half with the children playing the entire time. By the end of the session, the children were cooperating with each other and the dolphins, to fill buckets with water to dump over the dolphins and feed the dolphins fish.

To the parents it was astounding the children maintained interest for over an hour and cooperated; this was unique. Dr. Truby reported these results at conferences for some two years and received little interest. Finally, intrigued by Dr. Truby's results, Dr. Betsy Smith performed similar studies with positive results and began therapy programs at Dolphins Plus on Key Largo and Dolphin Research Center at Grassy Key in Florida.

Currently, Dr. David Nathanson has programs at Dolphin Research Center, and similar work continues at Dolphins Plus. Nathanson reports that their program has treated some 450 autistic people, many children with generally positive results. Nathanson reports that while there is often improvement with dolphin therapy, dramatic improvement is rare. (See Nathanson references) Several other facilities are operating in Florida, the Bahamas and elsewhere. With the interest in dolphins and the positive results of DAT, more centers are opening. (See Appendix III.)

My involvement with dolphins began when I read John Lilly’s works as a child and was privileged to be with dolphins in Texas for a summer when I was 14. They have been part of my life ever since. Later, at the University of Miami, pursuing degrees in neuroscience, I met and worked with Dr. Truby for some 12 years, especially with the Dolphin Project of the World Dolphin Foundation which Dr. Truby and our team created.

I have learned a great deal from the dolphins and they are always fascinating. My experiences led me to later join the Sirius Institute, now based in Hawai’i, as its research director. With our founder, Star Newland and others, we are establishing a human-dolphin habitat where we will live closely with the dolphins; learn from each other; communicate objectively; birth children underwater with them; and investigate the nature of the “dolphin effect” on autism, brain trauma, and other conditions.4 Since Dr. Truby’s first studies, the field has expanded. Among other conditions, DAT has improved the following:

Autism (Hank Truby, Betsy Smith, Robert Nathanson)

Joint problems (various reports)
Down's syndrome (Nathanson)
Depression (Horace Dobbs, Operation Sunflower)
Cerebral palsy (Nathanson, Dolphin Research Center)
Improved learning - Children can learn 2-10 times faster around dolphins (Nathanson);
Angina (Roxanne Kremer)
Acoustic "zap” of a tumor (personal comm.),
Microcephaly [See below]
Dreamer dolphin fixes a neck [see below]
Restoration of partial vision loss [see below]

Some of these reports are expanded below.6

          1. A Case of Microcephaly

Scott Taylor of the Cetacean Studies Institute7, while at the 2nd International Conference on Dolphin Assisted Therapy in Cancun, Mexico, reported about dolphin therapy with a baby that had microcephaly, a rare disorder where the skull is too small to contain the brain. We have yet to develop effective ways to correct the condition.

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