Word of warning, in this blog I will be using negative terminology and describing stimming behaviours as symptoms.
There will be person first language. This was done in order for me to blend in and validate my quest for a treatment for ‘children with autism’. My children at no time had this therapy inflicted on them. We visited three clinics over a two day period. After being contacted by a major newspaper a few weeks ago, I have been posing as a mother who is interested in dolphin therapy, working undercover with a journalist and a photographer in Turkey. I knew nothing about dolphin therapy prior to the last two day’s, and now I hope with the paper’s exposè and this blog, that less people will seek it out. The first day we went to a Dolphin Centre in Antalya, a well groomed Turkish woman spoke to us through an interpreter, a German man. He said “She is a therapist who has worked with autistic children for fifteen years, and dolphin therapy can help in many cases”. When I asked how the therapy worked he said that “Dolphins use sonar energy”, and claimed “They have electro magnetic waves from their brains, that then can activate a child with autisms brain”. I asked how do the waves get to the child’s brain from the dolphin? He replied that “The child lays their head on the dolphins, and the waves transmit that way, or sometimes through the child’s chest”. He then went on to claim they had had a non verbal child from Russia, who “After having had their therapy began to talk, and though they are not sure if the therapy did it, we are sure it helped”. He said that not only do they do dolphin therapy they also do massage and play games with the children. When I asked if the games involved rewards for the children completing tasks I was told “Yes”. “Sometimes the children cry the first two or three times”, he said, “But they usually stop”. When asked what qualifications she had he side stepped it, instead showing us glossy enlarged photos of children posing with dolphins, he claimed these children are autistic. “Autism cannot go”, he said “But we can treat it. Symptoms such as teeth grinding and flapping can go”. I allowed a tear to gather in my eye, clasped the woman’s hand and told her “Thank you, this is the news I had been waiting for!”. During this time my children sat well away listening to music on their headphones. We were shown the dolphins, two we were told are babies in one pool, these would be used for the therapy and two older dolphins in another pool behind. The pools were not any larger than a normal sized swimming pool. The dolphins are also made to perform tricks for crowds, all the pools we went on to see, as well as this one were surrounded by plastic seats or benches. The price for this therapy we were told for both children for five sessions at 30 minutes each would be €3,000 but they would do it for €2,750. He recommended that we come back in six months to do a second lot, and offered us lifts to and from the therapy. I was also offered a complimentary swim with the dolphins on the last day and a massage. Er no thanks…
The text above relates to the first clinic and so does the video there and picsThe next day began early, we drove out to Kemer and met a woman they called Pastor. She said she “Had attended dolphin therapy school in Austria, and then had come to Turkey to practice as”, she explained smiling, “They don’t actually HAVE dolphins in Austria…”. She explained that the dolphins “Give off sonar rays and electro magnetic energy that connect with the childs brain. The child puts their head or chest on the dolphin for this to happen.” My children stood away playing on their phones during this exchange. I asked if the symptoms of autism like flapping, teeth grinding and verbal shrieks can be go after this therapy? She said “Most definitely though they cannot guarantee with every child”. She said “Many children after this therapy begin to talk”. She also asked what level of autism my children had? I replied “We don’t do that in the UK.” We asked if the children needed to be examined before starting the therapy, we were told “No”. She also said she plays games with the children in a room we were shown that contained pillows, a rug,various toys and a large fitness ball.
There was also a room with singing bowls on the floor, she said they use the vibrations from these as part of the therapy after the swim. The sessions she recommended be done in six to ten blocks then repeated in six months as “Obviously you will not see gains here, you will see them at home”. The price was similar to the day before, She said that two children were coming soon to have a thirty minute therapy session, and that she would ask the parents if we could sit in and observe. I asked if the children enjoyed it, she said “One of them not so much. That the child had cried each time but that she was not upset”,she said “Just letting her feelings be known”. A couple turned up with an older child of about ten and a pair of twins, aged approximately four years old. The twins ran happily back and forth, flapping and vocalising.
The mother said “They do not know if they have autism, that they have delays and say few words”. The father then said “They do this and another therapy”, when I asked what the other therapy was he replied “ABA, two hours per day each”. My heart sank. I asked if it had helped? He said “Yes they now make good eye contact, where as they had made none before”. The mother admitted that they have always communicated with each other well, she was not sure if it was telepathic but they had never needed words. The father said that “Now with ABA they would start to speak more”. One of the twins came over to me to see my favourite stimm toy, a bracelet with large glass green beads on it, I allowed her to hold it and the mother swiftly took it off her and handed it back to me. They then went off to put their wetsuits on and soon returned with their parents to join the therapist we had spoken to earlier and another man.
One twin however was hesitant to get into the pool, squirming and loudly vocalising. Once they were in the woman held one twin who seemed confident, the man held the other who had held my stimm toy and who was showing increasing distress. There are several signs that a child or adult can display, to show they are distressed that needs no translation. Hysterical cries and sobbing will mean terror, sadness, anger or frustration. We need no language translation to interpret that. Tears are universally accepted as a sign or distress, usually. The dolphins seemed out of energy themselves, they were very unlike the ones we had seen the day before. They had been in the same swimming sized pool we were told, for the last ten years. As the session began the more confident twin dressed in a red wetsuit began to sing what we came to realise was the christmas carol ‘Deck the halls’ in her native language.
The other twin sobbed, then would stop, echoing the song. Then the other would start again. The only words I can think of to describe watching this as they sang in turns to comfort each other was heartbreakingly eerie. The pink twins distress was complete, not helped by the mother and father mimicking her cries and in turn waving hands and yelling what I can only assume could be the English equivalent of “be quiet”, in a warning tone. She did not comply. The only time she stopped was when the dolphin swam around with both the child and therapist holding on to it’s collapsed dorsal fin. My children sat watching this in shock and grew increasingly outraged. Both autistic themselves and used to being accepted and indeed seeing complete acceptance of other autistic children and adults in every day life, well, this threw them completely. My son said to me “There’s nothing wrong with these kids, why are they doing this to them?”. I meanwhile was growing increasingly distressed and asked the kid’s if they wanted to leave, my daughter came out with me and sat cuddling me while I cried in the car park. We could still hear the little ones cries, even from there.
We went back to the hotel, went swimming ourselves and had lunch. Then out to the last clinic. We were met by a man who showed us in, there were two dolphins being made to do tricks with a orange plastic ball as we walked in. This one had three dolphins in one swimming sized pool and two in another next to it. The dolphins were twenty years old we were told, and had been “Saved from the sea as they did not to live. They were sick, and here are given food, water, some pills and some therapy”. This man like the ones before him told us all about electro magnetic energy the dolphins use to heal the children’s brains. “We have treated over one hundred children here with autism and other conditions, from Russia, America and Germany”, he boasted. Children talk afterwards and it improved their singing! “One child in Russia began to say mama and papa after his first sessions and did not return for a second block”, he explained. When asked about the therapists qualifications he said that “The therapist is fully trained with the dolphins, and good with the children”. We asked if a doctor would be present for the therapy, would the children be examined before getting into the water?
He replied we “Could pay extra for one to be there”, then later said “You do not need doctor for this, this is an alternative therapy”. He became irritated with me taking pictures of my children who were looking at the dolphins and asked that I stop. He like the other’s recommended five sessions then a break, then more. The youngest age child they could use the therapy on is three years old he told us. The price again was similar to the previous two. We thanked him and went to ‘work out our money’. And thankfully that was the last ‘clinic’. There are so many things wrong here. All the ‘clinics’ were in water parks, the dolphins were show dolphins who are trained to perform tricks and kept in pools that are to small. The second clinics dolphins seemed exhausted, one simply floating at times. The woman was seen to giving one of them a solution through a funnel connected to a tube that went into its mouth before the therapy session started.
All dolphins seen had collpased dorsal fins, caused by living in pools that are to small and being fed an unnatural diet.
This is wrong, these dolphins belong in the sea not stuck in small pools, forced to endure baying crowds and crying children. Apart from the obvious distress of the child we saw, we do not know the effects of the message these children receive from this. What reason if any, are they given for going into the water with these large mammals? The parents in turn are sold the idea that their children will be healed or treated which reinforces the message that their children are at fault or sick and need to be fixed. This again is wrong and as we know, potentially very dangerous as once this therapy does not cure their children of their neurological difference, chances are they will move on to something more extreme. The lesson here would be to accept your child, support and enable them and lastly presume competence. Always.
THE NEWS STORY:
Brit parents with autistic children paying thousands for ‘scam dolphin therapy’
EXCLUSIVE: A Sunday People investigation found marine parks in Turkey charge British parents up to £2,500 for the unproven “treatment”, claiming autistic children will see significant benefits from contact with dolphins
Marine parks in Turkey are charging British parents with autistic children thousands of pounds for unproven dolphin therapy “treatment”.
Some of the centres claim sonar signals “activate brain cells” if children touch heads with the mammals.
Staff at one waterpark visited by the Sunday People even claimed children unable to speak had uttered their first words after contact with dolphins.
Dozens of other parks offer services online – some claiming therapy can beat cancer and aid people with Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The centres, which also host cruel dolphin shows, charge people up to £2,500, assuring parents that their child will see significant benefits.
But experts accuse them of offering false hope.
Prof Richard Mills, a consultant for AT-Autism and former research director at the National Autistic Society, said: “It’s exploiting people to spend a lot of money on something where there is no evidence of any benefits.”
We visited three parks in or near Antalya – Aksu Dolphinarium, Dolphinland and Dolphin Park Kemer.
Aksu said British people “come more and more”.
Kemer said many come from the UK. Dolphinland told us “not so many English” people come.
All three parks claimed potential benefits for autistic people.
To examine the claims we took autism awareness campaigner Emma Dalmayne, 44, and her autistic children Damien, 12, and Skylar, seven.
Emma, who is also autistic, was horrified when she saw a therapy session at Dolphinland.
She said: “Don’t waste your money, it’s a scam.”
Emma was told by Aksu staff that her children would only show benefits six months later – at which point she should buy another ten-day course for £2,500 per child to maintain progress.
One therapist bragged how staff would coax her kids to swim even if distressed, adding: “Even if he cries, it’s normal for him to cry.”
Emma said: “When I heard them talking about my child’s brain it was horrifying.
“It’s yet another scam to fleece naive parents who are wasting thousands that could be spent on a more beneficial pastime that would give the children tools to cope in the world.”
None of the centres we spoke to guaranteed improvement or a cure.
But all three said there were long-term benefits for autism and tried to sell Emma ten sessions.
Aksu staff said: “It cannot heal but it can make it better. It’s not a cure, it’s just a treatment but you can make it better and dolphin therapy makes it better.”
A rep showed images of children touching heads with the mammals to exchange “waves”.
He said: “Electromagnetic waves help activate the brain of children. In some cases they can lose symptoms.”
A therapist at Dolphinland told us the animals have “signals and vibrations” and “they send these signals everywhere”.
She claimed: “For the kids with autism it helps so much. We have the kids that come every year and they’re better every year.
“If they don’t speak, for example, they start talking after therapy. Yes!”
Emma says Damien and Skylar have sensory issues which can lead to “flapping, gritting of teeth, spinning and repeating things to calm down”.
When she asked if these symptoms could be helped by dolphins, the therapist at Dolphinland said: “Yes of course” – adding that the children could lose “some of the bad energy”.
Asked outright if it would “heal” a lot of her children’s behaviours, Emma was told: “We hope so. Not all the kids are better. But you may try.”
We saw a session at Dolphinland, where the creatures are also made to perform tricks like throwing balls and catching hoops in shows.
Twin girls aged four spent 30 minutes with two “therapists” and two dolphins in their 32 x 25 metre pool.
One child screamed and cried as the dolphins rolled over so the girls could stroke them.
Their mother, from Craiova, Romania, said they were on day seven of ten and admitted her twins were “afraid” of the animals.
She said: “We need to wait six months but we are coming in August again.”
Watching the therapy session left Emma distressed.
The mum of six, from Plumstead, South London, said: “It was heartbreaking to see animals in pools with children screaming and crying. It’s cruelty mixed with fake therapy.
“My children’s reactions were horror, anger and sadness for the children we saw.
“I had to leave and cry. My son asked, why are they doing this? He’s very upset.”
When asked if Dolphin Park Kemer practitioners were medically trained and experienced with autism, the rep there said: “He’s experienced in making therapy, in how to stand in the water and play with the dolphin.
“It’s for the nervous system. Therapists stay in the water with the child… when you put your head underwater you can hear the signal. Honestly you don’t need a doctor. I can say this. This is something alternative for the child.”
When Emma asked if therapy could stop her children “flapping and making noises” he replied “yes”, before adding: “I cannot guarantee you will see these effects, nobody can say this.”
Asked again if it is a “good treatment for autism”, he insisted: “Yes, yes, yes.”
Prof Mills said: “Dolphin therapy promotes a narrative that autism can be cured. We know it can’t. We suspect any benefit from swimming with them is social. To take it to a pseudo-scientific level about brainwaves is too far.”
We visited all three parks in March. They closed because of Covid but have reopened and are offering therapy.
A spokesman for Aksu Dolphinarium admitted: “There is no medical side of this, it’s not proved yet. But there is a business side for us.”
He insisted the therapy works for “nearly 100 German families” that visit regularly. He described the therapy as a “love story between animal lovers” and defended the conditions in which the dolphins are kept.
Dolphinland said: “If it is a question on how therapy works and the scientific background and the therapy, you can approach me and write me and email and read my documents on the internet. If you want information on dolphin therapy, read our website.”
Kemer Dolphin Park has yet to comment.