Animal-Assisted Therapy Gone Wild

Animal-Assisted Therapy Gone Wild
By Lisa King

There has always been a special bond between children and animals. Animals unlike some people, are nonjudgmental comforters who accept and love us for who we are. In turn, most young children view animals as helpless and want to nurture and care for them. 

For decades, dogs have been used to comfort the sick, guide the blind and assist individuals with a number of ailments. In addition, dogs provide unique support for children with special needs such as autism. However, experts are now finding that dogs are not the only animals that are beneficial to those with mental health disorders and disabilities. Animal-assisted therapy has gone wild. Today, monkeys, elephants and even dolphins are inspiring and assisting special needs children and disabled people around the globe.


Individuals with spinal cord injury or other impaired mobility issues may find an assistance monkey is just what they need. Assistance monkeys can help with daily activities that may be difficult for individuals with limited mobility. The monkeys are trained to assist with a number of different tasks such as turning the pages of a book, switching the television channels on the remote, inserting a drinking straw into a bottle, repositioning a person’s limbs in a wheelchair and even relieving an annoying back itch by giving it a scratch.  Some healthcare professionals are also using monkeys to help their clients achieve greater independence over their lives.

In Thailand at a very special camp, you may be surprised by what you will see. Teenagers are bathing, riding, and playing ball with two friendly, female elephants, Nua Un and Prathida. Yes, elephants! And these are not your typical teenagers, these kids are autistic.

 Elephant therapy has shown to be promising to children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Autistic children are learning flexibility by buying food for the elephants using real money. If the elephants reject the food, the kids must return to the store and choose a different type of food for their elephants. The kids are also learning social interaction skills by playing ball with the elephants. Riding the large mammals’ addresses motor skills such as posture and balance. The children are also learning creativity by participating in art themed activities at the Thailand camp.

Elephants are not the only wild animals being used in therapy for special needs children. Vallarta Adventures' Dolphin Center in Nuevo Vallarta Mexico, is one of many places that offers dolphin-assisted therapy. Some experts believe that swimming with, feeding, touching and interacting with dolphins can provide a sense of accomplishment and increase social and communication skills. In addition, there is some scientific evidence that when dolphins use echolocation, a human’s brain frequency decreases from beta to alpha producing a calming effect. Beta brain waves are associated with a high level of alertness, reason, and logic. Alpha waves are present during deep relaxation. Other results showed that autistic children had better coordination, an increased attention span, improved motor skills and a strong emotional change after interacting with dolphins. Studies suggest that over half of the kids involved in dolphin therapy maintain or improve their skills following therapy. 

Some experts remain skeptical regarding the benefits of animal-assisted therapy, but if the animals comfort, motivate and give those with disabilities confidence and companionship, then progress has already been made.