Dolphins helping people with autism

By Past District Governor Richard Clarke, member of the Rotary Club of Strathcona Sunrise-Courtenay, Canada

We are accustomed to seeing some of our favorite animals such as dogs or horses providing support in therapeutic programs. Working with domesticated dolphins for therapy is uncommon and was certainly new for me when Rotary Foundation Trustee Per Hoyen, and Past District 1461 Governor Anette Lowert introduced me to the Dolphin Assisted Therapy Center (DAT) in Klaipeda, Lithuania.

The center’s therapy program has been working with dolphins at the Lithuanian Sea Museum since the early 2000’s. In 2015, DAT was formally created when the Lithuanian Government built a new performance aquatic arena and included space for the program. At the backend of the performance pool, they included three private bays of differing depths. This enables patients of various ages and heights to easily interact with the dolphins.

Therapists work with medical and social professionals to engage the dolphins. The dolphin trainers who are biologists and vets, are responsible for ensuring the dolphins participating in the program are taken care of. The dolphin interaction is a supplement based approach to traditional rehabilitation methods (sensory integration, psycho emotional support, physical therapy), but not an alternative to other treatment methodologies. Check out this video to learn more about the program.

The Center offers therapy programs for a wide range of conditions, particularly for adults with psychological problems. But what caught the interest of the Rotary Club of Klaipeda Adite, who has been working with the center, is the two-week intensive therapy program for families with children who have autism. The entire family is invited to the center for two weeks, where in addition to the therapy program for the child, the center offers programming for the child’s siblings and another program for their parents. This enables families to gain a more holistic view of their child. Physical therapists, sensory specialists, TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication-Handicapped Children) structured teaching specialists, and social workers are involved in individualized counseling.

Lithuanian Sea Museum’s Dolphin Assisted Therapy Department and the Rotary Club of Klaipeda Adite are sharing the costs of the program. Out of town families are responsible for their accommodation and food costs during the two-week program. The club is helping offset costs for families who do not have the resources to cover those expenses. The club also supports a winter and summer camp for children who have autism.

Diagnosed autism is on the rise around the world. Most communities and countries are still struggling to provide therapy and other programs to support families with children who have autism. The Rotary Club of Klaipeda Adite’s involvement is just one example of the many ways in which Rotary clubs can help families meet the challenges that autism presents.

In recognition of a growing interest from Rotarians to assist families with autism within and beyond their communities, the Health Education and Wellness Rotarian Action Group (HEWRAG) created an autism network of interested Rotarians. If you or your club are interested or are already involved in supporting autism programs and would like to become involved in our network, please contact me.

One thought on “Dolphins helping people with autism

  1. This is a wonderful program. I have three grandsons with Autism, who all connect beautifully with animals – I can only imagine how delightful this sort of interaction would be for them. Keep up the good work.

    Rotarian – D. 9685

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