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

Key Features

Dolphin therapy is any kind of intervention (treatment or service) which involves dolphins. 

Type of dolphin therapy

There are many different kinds of dolphin therapy. The simplest involve the child swimming with, touching or 'looking after' dolphins.

The more complex therapies, such as Dolphin-Assisted Therapy (DAT), are based on structured programmes which are designed to meet the needs of the individual child.

According to Humphries (2003), “DAT consists of defining a treatment goal for the individual child, such as completing a gross or fine motor task (e.g. placing a ring on a peg) or producing a language behavior (e.g. independently saying a word). Materials used as adjuncts to therapy are typically present during a DAT session, including rubber balls or rings for eliciting motor responses, or flash cards depicting objects for language responses.

“Children receive on-dock orientation to the dolphins, with the child and the child’s therapist typically sitting at the edge of a padded floating dock about 2-3 inches above the water, while a dolphin trainer controls the movements of a dolphin in the water. During orientation, children are able to touch or play with the dolphin from the dock or to give hand signals to the dolphin to elicit specific dolphin behaviors.

“Following the orientation period, children engage in a series of therapeutic sessions during which they may interact with the dolphin from the dock or in the water after giving a correct motor, cognitive, or language response. Interactions with the dolphins may include touching, kissing, taking a short ride holding onto the dolphin’s dorsal fin, or dancing in a circular motion with the dolphin.

“Following each episode of reinforcement, the child and therapist return to the therapeutic task, often with an increasing frequency and complexity of correct responses required for the child to interact with the dolphin.” 

Type of dolphin

Most dolphin therapy programmes use dolphins which are native to the country in which the therapy is taking place. So, for example, bottlenose dolphins may be used in the USA while indo-pacific humpback dolphins may be used in Singapore. 

There are even some dolphin therapy programmes which use animatronic or digital versions of dolphins but we have not included these in our evaluation.

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