Wisdom of the Wild
Dolphin Healing

Child in therapy with a dolphin

With their curious nature and trademark “smile” — formed by delicately curved jaws — dolphins have become the symbol of the friendly playmate of the sea. Indeed, as NATURE’s Wisdom of the Wild shows, some dolphins do seem to form special attachments with people — including disabled children who fail to respond to other kinds of therapy.

Some parents, in fact, say the chance to swim with captive dolphins has changed their child’s life. Withdrawn autistic children, for instance, have responded to the marine mammals in remarkable ways — forging bonds that have proved difficult with human playmates. The idea, say psychologists familiar with the technique, is that the promise of swimming with such a large and fascinating creature provides an incentive to try different — and sometimes difficult — therapeutic tasks.

One of the prime movers behind Dolphin Human Therapy, as it is known, is David Nathanson, a clinical psychologist living in Florida. In the late 1970s, he used the reward of swimming with dolphins to motivate children with Down’s syndrome to learn. He found that the children who worked with dolphins learned up to four times faster — and remembered more of what they learned — than those in conventional classroom settings.

In the 1980s, “Dr. Dave,” as he became known, organized a dolphin-assisted therapy program in the Florida Keys that eventually grew into a full-fledged center in Key West. Since 1994, it has worked with children from over 37 states and 20 countries.

While some researchers dispute the effectiveness of the program, others say the work with dolphins parallels the success of other animal therapy programs, which use everything from pet mice to racehorses to help people cope with problems in their lives. But dolphin therapy can be prohibitively expensive. To address that problem, Nathanson and others are working on creating a “virtual dolphin experience,” which recaptures the joy and freedom of swimming with the animals using video and computer technologies. If successful, virtual dolphins will eventually allow some children to get at least part of the thrill of the experience without leaving home.

  • Alan Brennan

    Sobbed thru the whole thing. Must send a copy to my grandkids.

  • Kara Higdon

    I saw this episode and was curious as to what “rare genetic disorder” Thomas had because I have a 3 year old niece who doesn’t talk either and she has therapists that do not seem to know what’s wrong. She acted the exact same as Thomas and her parents are frustrated. Is there any way I can find out? Thanks.

  • Tracy De Cicco

    Bit conflicted if I feel that animals should be “used” for our benefit….

  • sharon Dominy

    I think the virtual dolphin thing to help kids who need it and may not be able to get out is awesome I am an adult with many physical medical problems and it is hard emotionally financiLLY AND Physically for me to do things I wish there was a dolphin swim like that here accessable for me. if I can help with this virtual thing let know

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  • Xavier

    Before any parent of an autistic child decides to try and swim the dolphins, I suggest you see Japan slaughtering the very dolphins your autistic child may be swimming with: See the movie: The Cove (film) – The migrating dolphins are herded into a hidden cove where they are netted … to
    be devoted to the wonder of the dolphins and whales that swim off its coast. …
    Attempts to view or film the dolphin killing in the cove are physically blocked….gee, it’s all about money, what else? Bad karma is coming to these dolphin killing people. What a scam. Just like the people making money off autism. It’s not about autism, it’s all about making money OFF autism.

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