The effect of dolphin-assisted therapy on the cognitive and social development of children with down syndrome

Richard E. Griffioen*, M-J Enders-Slegers

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


    Cognitive and speech development are delayed in children with Down syndrome (DS). We investigated the effect of dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT), a form of animal-assisted intervention, on the development of speech/language and social behavior in children with DS. We hypothesized that DAT would improve the social and cognitive functions with respect to verbalization and thereby promote task performance. A semi-crossover design was used to study 45 children with DS: 18 received a weekly one-hour session of DAT for 6 weeks (group A), 12 children (group B) started with swimming pool sessions (control period of 6 weeks) and thereafter received DAT, and 17 children (group C) were put on a waiting list (control period of 6 weeks) before receiving DAT. The parameters “verbalization,” “impulsiveness,” “proper understanding of rules,” “recognition of persons,” and “establishing contacts” were measured using the Matson Evaluation of Social Skills for Individuals with Severe Retardation (MESSIER) before and after DAT, as well as before and after each of the control periods. Repeated measures ANOVA revealed no significant changes for any of the variables during the control periods (swimming pool, waiting list). Following the period of DAT there was a significant improvement in “verbalization” and “recognition of persons,” while “impulsiveness” decreased. No significant changes were found for the other parameters. “Verbalization” continued to increase during the follow-up period of 6 months, while “recognition of persons” slightly decreased. The results of this study provide support for our hypothesis. Through improvements in verbalization and the recognition of persons, the execution of tasks among children with DS receiving DAT improved. Additional studies are needed to determine if these positive effects of DAT are long-term.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)569-580
    Number of pages12
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - 2014


    • animal-assisted interventions
    • dolphin-assisted therapy
    • DOWN syndrome


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