Dolphin therapy for special needs kids – and parents

Cerebral Palsy can be frustrating for those affected by the physical development disability. CP can also be disheartening for the family members that care for their afflicted loved ones.

In six-year-old Keir Percy’s case, he would get so angry about his inability to communicate or express his emotions that he would resort to spitting, pulling hair, hitting and kicking his mom, dad and brother.

Keir’s parents, Leigh and Gavin, came up with a term for when his outbursts were about to happen – “kicking off.”

“Keir was becoming so violent to us that we had to do something about it,” Leigh said. “We heard about dolphin therapy and decided that this might be a new way to help solve this problem.”

The family travelled from York, UK, to the Cayman Islands for the dolphin-assisted therapy program at Dolphin Cove. Diane “Dee Dee” Sandelin is the lead therapist at Rapid Development Therapy Cayman Islands.

“On the first day, Keir ‘kicked off’ in the car and the tantrum continued when we met in the office. Keir was screaming at the top of his lungs,” Ms Sandelin said. “I told his father that I couldn’t reward this behaviour, so we had to reschedule the dolphin swim part of the therapy.”

That seemingly simple instruction began what Neil Burrowes, the managing director of RDTCI and Dolphin Cove, described as Ms Sandelin’s brilliance in therapy.

“She’s like Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer. But she’s whispering to the parents,” he said, adding that he’s absolutely amazed by her therapy techniques. “Dee Dee is giving families invaluable tools that help them in everyday situations. With a little help from the dolphins, she’s changing their lives.”

The therapy

While in the observation process of therapy, Ms Sandelin noticed that Leigh and Gavin would have to bargain with Keir for him to behave properly in public. “It was like Let’s Make a Deal… like they were going to pay him in advance not to be bad,” she said. So, she implemented a new system with the parents – no more deals.

Another one of her methods with Keir was focusing on specific behaviours problems and putting terms and actions into positives.

“Instead of ‘don’t hit’ or ‘stop kicking’, we would talk about Keir using his kind hands and kind feet,” Ms Sandelin said. She added that this therapy intervention needed to happen at age six for Keir. “He’s getting older, and things don’t get better. They get worse.”

Ms Sandelin also worked on his fine motor skills, academic skills and literacy skills. And, of course, they worked with the dolphins. Where Keir might have showed violence out of the water, he was a sweetheart in the water.

“The dolphins [Ziggy and Nemo] were fantastic, and Keir was fantastic with the dolphins,” she said.

Since the family has returned to the UK, they have continued to carry out the rules that Ms Sandelin implemented.

“Keir understands the expectations and he is pleased to be achieving them,” Leigh said. “If he has issues, he practices the self-regulating that Dee Dee showed him.” As for Leigh and Gavin, they now have tools for everyday challenges.

“We feel that we have a road map on how to deal with his behaviour moving forward,” she said.

“The strategies we implemented from the therapy have showed us how to take a step back and actually see what is going on. We can now take control of Keir and manage him, rather than the other way around,” she said. “We all feel very positive about the future.”

For more information on how to participate in Rapid Development Therapy, call 704-7012

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