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3 B Special needs, special program

THE GAZETTE

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· montrealgazette.com · S A T U R D AY, FEBRUARY 8, 2014

HOLISTIC HEALTH

“The interaction between therapist, child and dolphin is very close.” SHEILA BOTTON, DOLPHIN AID CANADA

DOLPHIN-ASSISTED THERAPY may be controversial, but parents who have seen their children open up swear by its benefits MARISSA MILLER SPECIAL TO THE GAZETTE

“C

ome on, man, you’re 14 years old. I don’t want to see that anymore,” the therapist from the Curacao Dolphin Therapy and Research Center told her patient, Jonathan Larouche. “No more diapers anymore. Finished.” That was the last diaper Jonathan ever wore. “It’s time to go in the water, and you know what that means. You have a wetsuit to put on, buddy,” the therapist told him the next day. After never even having put on a pair of pants, Jonathan put on a wetsuit. Montrealer Sue Merrifield Larouche and her husband, Michel, watched in awe as their son fed himself spaghetti just weeks after. And when he later went the entire night without wetting the bed — and was in his own bed, no less — they were convinced his confidence and fine motor skills had reached an unprecedented high. Prior to embarking on the two-week therapy program on the Dutch island of Curacao in July 2012, this behaviour was unheard of for Jonathan, who suffers from autism and cerebral palsy. His parents credit his leaps entirely to the Curacao Dolphin Therapy and Research Center (CDTC). “We came back and we had a different child,” Merrifield Larouche said after returning from the trip as a family. “Before, he was someone we just took care of, but we had forgotten the light in him, and the therapist fed that. We feel like he’s finally a part of the decisions we make as a family.” The program allows children with cognitive disabilities to interact with a dolphin for 45 minutes a day alongside psychologists and occupational, physical and speech therapists. It claims to improve emotional control, communication skills and attention span, while enabling children to be more receptive to other forms of therapy. The cost per child is approximately $7,850 U.S., including airfare, accommodation and the therapy itself. When CDTC representative and Dolphin Aid Canada president Sheila Botton brought the program to the Canadian market in 2011, the Larouches had no reservations about participating. “We read about the mystical connection between kids with disabilities and dolphins, and it seemed like something novel and only positive,” Merrifield Larouche said. The Larouches swam with dolphins thanks to the Starlight Children’s Foundation when Jonathan was seven, but they wanted to explore the phenomenon further. The opportunity to participate in the CDTC’s program fell into their lap when the CTV documentary program W5 was seeking a child with communication issues to swim with dolphins for free as part of a report. After being wait-listed, Merrifield Larouche chose to raise the money for the therapy. “I said, ‘You know, it’s $20,000 (for the whole family) and I’m sure we could raise that.’ When you’re so full of possibilities for your child, you pull out all the stops and you go for broke. “The journey to the trip was as morale-building and as important to us as the trip itself, because we really earned it. We were constantly updating everyone through Facebook, so it was really like a community raising a child.” In Curacao, the Larouches were able to have an hourlong encounter with the dolphin who aided Jonathan in therapy. “Meeting, touching, kissing, hugging. Thanking that wonderful creature for

CURACAO DOLPHIN THERAPY AND RESEARCH CENTER

Jonathan Larouche, who suffers from autism and cerebral palsy, spent two weeks with his family at the Curacao Dolphin Therapy and Research Center, where interactions with dolphins were complemented by more conventional therapy. “We came back and we had a different child,” his mother says.

MUSTAFA OZER/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES FILES

Dolphins intuitively know what a special-needs child requires, says Dolphin Aid Canada president Sheila Botton, “whether it’s a little more playfulness, calmness or contact.” helping us have new insight into Jonathan,” Merrifield Larouche said. “It was a bit spiritual. ... The dolphin knew we were Jon’s family.”

Botton has been instrumental in facilitating fundraisers for Canadian families

embarking on the trip. As an editor at the travel magazine Events Curacao, she sets out to the island yearly to curate material. When she greeted the centre’s founder to obtain its marketing information, she realized the dolphin therapy story shouldn’t be limited to a travel magazine. She printed a brief in the Montreal-based parenting magazine A2Z Parents, which she co-founded, and took it further by bringing the 18-yearold program to Canadians. Botton stresses that dolphin-assisted therapy is not a replacement for traditional therapy. “It is not ‘a better way,’ but a remarkable way of benefiting the wellness and rehabilitation of the child participating in the program. ... The interaction between therapist, child and dolphin is very close, attentive and rewarding.” Ask her to elaborate on her passion for dolphins, and she will recount memories of tearing up at the sound of dolphins, their human-like mannerisms and surreal intuition. Ask her why she thinks the therapy conducted at the CDTC is so effective, and she will say that “the dolphin just feels what the child needs, whether it’s a little more playfulness, calmness or contact.” Botton may be on to something. In 2012, the Central Animal Authority in India declared that “cetaceans ... should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific

rights.” The result? Dolphin parks in India were to close, and bids for future ones were dropped. Conducting dolphin shows and holding dolphins in captivity are prohibited. The ruling doesn’t stem only from the ways in which dolphins are mistreated, but from an effort to remain aware of their complex, human-like cognition. This points to an irony regarding dolphin-assisted therapy: It fosters a mutually beneficial atmosphere for the child and the dolphin — Botton emphasizes how the five at the CDTC are “loved and respected” and cared for by the centre’s team — while simultaneously exploiting the dolphin. Botton says dolphins’ therapeutic ability lies in their acute awareness of the difference between a fully healthy child and one with special needs. She says they tend to gravitate to a child who is unable to tread water, for example, in hopes of boosting their confidence and acting as a source of protection and guidance. Where some physicians may fall short in compassion, dolphins can make up the difference. Unlike in a standard rehabilitation room, children with special needs “can really come alive in the water,” Botton said. The buoyancy, current, temperature and overall atmosphere of the water extract special-needs children from their comfort zone and urge them to engage with skills they don’t normally have an opportunity to hone. This explains why Erika Tencer and her husband, Jon Silver, wanted to try dolphinassisted therapy for Atara Stolovitsky, their 17-year-old daughter, who has Down’s syndrome. Even after completing her bat mitzvah in sign language and setting

off yearly to Camp B’nai Brith with the limited aid of a shadow, Tencer strongly believed her Justin Bieber- and Superman-loving teenager could gain more awareness of her surroundings and a stronger sense of self and family through the CDTC. When Atara was just a few months old, Tencer heard about the positive correlation between children with Down’s syndrome and animal-assisted therapy, but didn’t think much of it. In February 2012, she was introduced to the CDTC and put Atara on the waiting list. When she received a call from Botton a year later confirming Atara had been accepted into the program and would be the third Canadian child to participate, she was ecstatic. The excitement turned into anxiety when she recalled the price tag. The family worked tirelessly to raise sufficient funds so the four of them (including the couple’s other daughter, Tova) could travel to Curacao in November. After completing several fundraisers, including a comedy show and a golf tournament, they felt grateful for the response they received from soliciting financial and moral support through social media. A final fundraiser at Summit School in September covered the last of the money the family needed. Additional funds raised will be transferred to the next family embarking on the program.

There is therapeutic merit in mingling with dolphins, but

a two-week span isn’t enough to yield lasting results, according to Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and senior lecturer at Emory University in Atlanta. “I’ve published two major

methodological critiques of dolphin therapy, and I can tell you without reservation that there is no evidence that it results in anything but very short-term positive mood elevations,” she said. But what is the opportunity cost of such a program? In a nutshell: Is it worth it? Marino suggests the program is likely to yield a placebo effect as opposed to a lasting therapeutic one. “I think the best thing for families to know is that this is not real therapy, and despite what they think the outcome will be, there will be no longterm improvement for their child, and particularly none for the problems specific to their condition. “Also, given that parents spend incredible sums of money to go to these places in desperate hope of treatment for their child, they will convince themselves of improvement, even when there is none objectively. When I see a family being exploited by this industry, the kindest thing is to make them aware of the issues.” What Marino finds most egregious about this therapy is that swimming with captive dolphins can be risky. “A number of people have been injured severely,” she said. “The dolphins do not have a choice as to whether they interact with the child and they become frustrated and aggressive.” (Botton replies: “There has never been a case where a dolphin has become aggressive at the CDTC, since the dolphins work out of their own free will. ... If a dolphin misbehaves — kind of like a child who wants to do his own thing — there are other parts of the lagoon where they can take a break. ... The dolphins only participate in the therapy for a limited number of hours and are provided with a high-quality diet. CDTC has a specialized veterinarian on the premises.”) Sarah Shultz, a PhD in psychology and a post-doctoral fellow at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, recommends families invest their time and resources in evidence-based therapies. (According to the Autism Science Foundation, these include applied behavioural analysis, occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy and pharmacological therapy.) “This is definitely not the families’ fault. Information out there is confusing and misleading,” she said. “It’s very difficult for people to know what is backed by objective scientific evidence and what isn’t.”

Marino added: “In terms of hippotherapy (in which horses are employed alongside more conventional forms of therapy), there is some evidence that there are modest effects, and that evidence is stronger for hippotherapy than dolphin therapy.”

Despite the conflicting views of dolphin-assisted therapy, Atara is living proof that daily interaction with a dolphin for two weeks can do wonders for a child’s confidence, communication skills and attention span — at least in the short term. “Research is for people who need proof, like medical information. Holistic therapy like DAT is all about so many different aspects. It’s about getting on a plane and seeing dolphins and putting on a wetsuit,” Tencer said before the trip to Curacao. “Ask us when we get back what she’s gotten out of it, but I can only imagine a million things she can get out of it.” There have already been signs of progress. For example, Atara used to become aggressive and resistant when woken up; now she wakes up five minutes before her alarm goes off. Tencer recognizes that Atara won’t reap lasting benefits of dolphin-assisted therapy if her parents fail to regularly practise techniques for physical coordination and motor skills that she performed with her trainer during the trip. Unlike what Tencer had been practising with Atara since she was young, her therapist taught her to refrain from relying on American Sign Language, which the therapist believes acts as a crutch and a hindrance to verbal speech. “It makes perfect sense,” Tencer said, “but sometimes you need something drastic to realize what’s going on.” Looking for the same effect, but don’t have the time or funds for the trip? Marino suggests having your child pet a puppy, ride a horse or go on vacation to a new place, “instead of enlisting them in precarious programs.” According to that logic, the CDTC program at least qualifies as going on vacation to a new place, and regardless of how provocative the therapy may be, Merrifield Larouche has no regrets. “I cannot believe that a boy who a year ago was still sleeping with us because he had night terrors and wore a diaper is now going to bed on his own,” she said. “He had metamorphoses. Is it a cureall? I wouldn’t say that. But it instilled hope, and hope can take you many places.”

Special needs, special Program  

Dolphin-assisted therapy may be controversial, but parents who have seen their children open up swear by its benefits