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Dolphin Therapy and Autism Ranking: Mildly Hazardous Insufficient/Mixed evidence

Current Research

We have identified nine* studies of dolphin therapy as an intervention for people on the autism spectrum published in English-language, peer-reviewed journals.

We have been unable to identify exactly how many participants on the autism spectrum were included in these studies because some of them included a wide range of participants but did not state how many of those participants were on the autism spectrum. 

Different studies looked at different programmes in different countries.  For example, the study by Chia et al (2009) looked at the use of indo-pacific humpback dolphins in the Dolphin Encounter for Special Children programme in Singapore while the study by Nathanson et al (1997) looked at the use of bottlenose dolphins in the Dolphin Human Therapy programme in Florida. The length of treatment in the studies varied from two weeks to more than a year, although only one study (Servais, 1999) lasted longer than a year. 

There were a number of studies which compared dolphin therapy with other interventions. For example, the study by Breitenbach et al, 2009 compared two versions of dolphin therapy with two other treatments (including parent counselling and interaction with farm animals). The study by Servais, 1999 compared dolphin therapy with control groups which received classroom or computer instruction. 

The majority of the studies reported a number of benefits to the participants. For example:

  • Some of the studies (such as Breitenbach et al (2009) reported increases in social and communication skills, along with increases in self-confidence.
  • Some of the studies (such as Chia et al, 2009) reported reductions in repetitive and restricted behaviours.
  • Some of the studies (such as Nathanson, 1998) reported that the benefits were long lasting (over six months to a year after intervention).
  • One study (Salgueiro et al, 2012) reported no significant effects and one study (Chia et al, 2009) reported a decrease in social and communication skills.

*Please note: We have not included studies where artificial dolphins (animatronic or digital) were used.

Updated
18 Dec 2017
Last Review
01 Nov 2017
Next Review
01 Nov 2020