SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (KSAZ) - A unique form of aqua-therapy is offering new hope to disabled children and their parents, and Scottsdale is one of only a few cities in North America where patients can go to take part in a dolphin-assisted therapy program.
Chloe the Dolphin is now part of 15-year-old Evelyn Meyer's therapy program. Evelyn has Rett Syndrome, a neurological disorder that leaves her unable to talk, walk, or use her hands.
"She really has a limited range of experience because she's in a chair, and doesn't have hand use to touch and feel," said Laurie Meyer, Evelyn's mother.
Evelyn regularly undergoes physical, speech, and occupational therapy. Her parents say they noticed immediate results after her first dolphin-assisted therapy session.
"Some of the things that we've seen that I didn't expect was how much reaching and holding touching shes able to do in here," said Laurie.
"Normally she's very tight and withdrawn, and here she's willing to open up and she's willing to accept those experiences," said Mike Meyer, Evelyn's father. "Everything here is a choice, so through her communications, she's making positive choices, whether she wants to interact with the dolphins or not. Evelyn is able to work through her disability and overcome that. One of the big effects of that is that she can use the dolphin as a motivator to do so."
The Sea STAR Program at Dolphinaris in Scottsdale just launched earlier this year. It offers more than a chance to swim with dolphins, as the team of specialists create a 10-day program tailored to specific goals for the child.
During one particular session, the goal for Evelyn was to get her to socialize and communicate.
"The dolphins are super interactive," said Krista Roland, Sea STAR Co-Founder and Lead Specialist. "Playful, smart and intuitive. Adds a lot to the therapy process. Kids can receive physical occupational, receive life skills social skills."
The founders don't claim dolphins have special healing powers. Rather, they use the dolphins as motivation and reward for kids, as they complete aqua-therapy goals.
"Its a really sensory-rich environment," said Roland. "So the water, the dolphin's sounds, sight and everything provides a rich base from which their knowledge can grow on."
15-year-old Jacob Weidner has Asperger's Syndrome, and has trouble socializing with peers, balance and coordination.
"I've done therapy pretty much my whole life," said Jacob.
Jacob's mother, Stacey Weidner, said most days, he refuses to go to his appointments or leave the house.
"It's very tiring for me," said Jacob. "Well, this is physical therapy. It doesn't feel like it."
"He's building up his inner core. Working on balance hand movement, on all the physical aspects in everyday life," said Stacey.
"The dolphins are very comforting and fun to play with," said Jacob. "First, you may be kind of nervous because they're big, but it quickly fades."
Specialists say just as the kids take to the dolphins, the dolphins also befriend the kids. On Jacob's second round of the 10-day therapy program, Chloe the Dolphin seemed to look forward to her time with him.
"He did the sign, and the dolphin did what they asked to" said Roland. "Not everyone can do that sign and the dolphin will do it, so you can see they have that bond."
Evelyn's parents are optimistic that she will also have a positive experience, while working on her communication and physical skills. The normally withdrawn teenager smiled nearly the entire session, and her parents were surprised at how much she was at ease with strangers and with the dolphin.
"Basically I think it takes away her disability for a while," said Mike.
Sea star is a non-profit organization ... And founders say the state approved the use of empowerment scholarship account funds for their dolphin assist therapy program.
It is open to both children and adults.
Sea STAR Dolphin Assisted Therapy