China Uses Dolphins to Help Treat Autism

Jul 8, 2010
A captive dolphin. (Photo: BarnyardBBS/Creative Commons)

If you want to roll up a fistful of ethically ambiguous practices into one tangled, complicated ball, try this one on for size: a marine park in China has purchased four dolphins from Japan to be used to treat kids with autism, People’s Daily Online reports.

Royal Ocean World in Fushun City, Liaoning Province, paid some $738,000 for the animals, which it plans to use to continue a therapy program it started in 2007 with three other dolphins.

The park says it already has more than 100 families lined up to take advantage of the program.

The move touches on a raft of controversial issues surrounding the treatment, starting with the mere purchase of the dolphins from Japan. Japan is a major world provider of captive dolphins, and has come under fire for some of its practices, particularly those in the town of Taiji, where dolphins not chosen for sale are slaughtered for meat, as chronicled in the documentary, The Cove.

But some groups oppose dolphin captivity no matter where the animals come from. Some scientists argue that the animals are too intelligent to be captured and confined in marine parks.

Royal Ocean World, however, is hardly the first park to use captured dolphins for human therapy: two other marine zoos in China already do it, along with centers in Florida, Hawaii and other locations.

But one obvious question stands out: does dolphin-assisted therapy work?

The People’s Daily story provides a brief look into some of the beliefs about the practice.

“Dolphins emit high-frequency ultrasonic waves which stimulate dormant brain cells in autistic children,” the story reads, attributing the comment to the director of Royal Ocean World. It then quickly quotes a doctor, however, about whether it really works.

"There is no scientific proof that dolphin therapy cures autistic people right now, and while it might be helpful for children, little effect has been seen on adults.”

A Science Daily story from 2007 found doctors who took a direct stand.

"Dolphin-assisted therapy is not a valid treatment for any disorder," says [Lori] Marino, a leading dolphin and whale researcher. "We want to get the word out that it's a lose-lose situation for people and for dolphins."

Marino is a researcher at Emory University, according to the story.

Even Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, Florida, says the treatment can be effective, but is not scientifically proven.

“The love and acceptance displayed by the dolphins and staff provide an enthralling, motivational catalyst for children,” reads the group’s FAQ page. “The program,” the page notes, “is designed to assist children and adolescents who have chronic medical, developmental, or physical disabilities.”

However: “There is no scientific proof that they heal nor is there proof that they do not heal. A child with a diagnosis leaves with that same diagnosis,” the page reads.

The cost of a five-day treatment at the center is $2,200.

Participant Media—the parent company of—was responsible for the Social Action campaign for "The Cove."

Photo: BarnyardBBS/Creative Commons via Flickr

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