Friday, September 28, 2007

Dolphin assisted therapy changes boy's life!

Johannes couldn't concentrate for more than a few moments. Eye contact was rare and communication with the 9-year-old was nearly impossible. Then he met Nemo.

Nemo is a dolphin and part of an innovative therapy program that helps children battle the challenges of autism.

At the Curacao Dolphin Therapy and Research Centre (CDTC), Nemo and three other dolphins are partners with rehabilitation professionals in fields such as psychology, physical therapy, special education and behavioural therapy and speech and language pathology and other disciplines.

"When we first came, Johannes could barely leave his mother," says Rolf Kuchler, Johannes' father, who has brought his son here four times at a cost of $6,000 (U.S.) for each of the private two-week sessions. "Lisa (Faust) the therapist took him into the water, and he became so fascinated by Nemo, he focused for almost two hours ... we couldn't believe it."

The sessions are in a secluded lagoon where the child, a dolphin and a therapist interact. Stroking and eye contact are encouraged. Hitting and withdrawing aren't.

The dolphins' movements are used to relate to the child and make the therapy fun.

Dolphins naturally seek eye contact and children connect. It's up to the therapist to modify the child's movements. For example, if the goal is to relax a child's convulsive hand, they'll be encouraged to touch the dolphin's side. Positive response from the dolphin encourages the child to keep the hand open to stroke the smooth flesh. It's effective, but it's not magic.

"We see great things happening every day, but we don't want people to believe that swimming with dolphins will cure everything. They can't work miracles," says head physical therapist Marco Kuerschner. "But for many children, just realizing that dolphins share some of the same limitations they do is life-changing."

And the results seem to last, provided the behaviour modification continues at home.

"We teach families to recognize communication signals," says Faust.

"If a child can't speak, he has to do something to signal his needs. Pinching himself, or chewing his lips can be signs, so the key to meeting needs, relieving frustration facilitating positive behaviour lies in decoding those signals."

The program is open to children with cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, learning and behavioural problems, post-traumatic stress and other disorders. Participants must be between 3 and 20 years old and accompanied by a parent or caretaker.

For information on the Curacao Dolphin Therapy Center, visit

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"