Dolphin therapy is any kind of intervention (treatment or service) which involves dolphins.
There are many different kinds of dolphin therapy. The simplest involve the child swimming with, touching or 'looking after' dolphins.
The more complex therapies, such as Dolphin-Assisted Therapy (DAT), are based on structured programmes which are designed to meet the needs of the individual child.
In DAT the child is encouraged to complete one or more pre-determined tasks, such as placing a ring on a peg or saying a word. If the child completes the task to a satisfactory standard, they are rewarded by being allowed to interact with a dolphin.
This interaction may include touching or kissing the dolphin, or getting into the water and taking a ride holding onto the dolphin's dorsal fin.
There is a very small amount of low quality research (two group studies and seven single case design studies with 3 or more participants) into the use of dolphin therapy as an intervention for autistic people.
Because the quality of that research is so poor we cannot determine whether dolphin therapy is likely to provide any benefits to anyone who is autistic. We must wait for further research of sufficiently high quality to be completed.
Dolphin therapy presents a number of ethical issues, and some physical threats, to both people and dolphins, which may be difficult to overcome. Of particular concern are the potential for aggressive behaviour by dolphins towards swimmers and the potential for disease transmission between humans and dolphins.
Alternatives to dolphin therapy are available, at a much lower financial cost and without the potential harm to the people and the dolphins involved. Because of this we cannot recommend the use of dolphin therapy as an intervention for autistic people.
If more research into dolphin therapy is carried out, it should use scientifically robust, experimental methodologies. However, given the high costs of the therapy, alongside the potential hazards to humans and dolphins, this intervention should not be considered as a priority for future research.
Please read our Disclaimer on Autism Interventions