David and the Dolphins

06/08/2011 06:57 pm ET | Updated Aug 08, 2011

"We're taking Dave to Florida to swim with the dolphins," Tom and Mary told us when their son was just over 4 years old.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that such a vacation is a little over-the-top, given that at that age playing with a mere stuffed version of the mammal is fascinating in itself.

But Dave had just been diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP). He still did not speak, and some of his behavior resembled that of an autistic child. Dave lived in a world of his own and appeared emotionally isolated, despite the efforts of his parents and older siblings (6 and 7 years old) to involve him in their games and in the family's daily lifestyle.

It was his Swiss physiotherapist who suggested that little Dave might benefit from Dolphin Human Therapy, given that DHT -- researched and developed by Dr. Dave Nathanson -- can help jump-start the learning process in some children with developmental problems. While DHT can treat most disabilities, some of its patients' most common diagnoses include CP, Down Syndrome, autism, spina bifida, traumatic brain injury, genetic syndromes and learning disabilities.

And so, the family set off for four weeks in Dolphin Cove in Key Largo, Fla. It was July 2005.

"After only five sessions, we put Dave to the test by taking him to a restaurant," Tom tells me. "He stayed seated for the entire duration of the meal for the first time in his life (usually he would get up and wander off). After 20 sessions he was more interested in other people, his behavior was less autistic, and he managed to verbalize much more."

One can book 10 to 20 DHT sessions, depending on one's financial means (the 10-session program currently runs at $5,400; 20 sessions cost double that amount).

In brief, DHT integrates the skills of an array of therapists (physical, occupational, speech, education, psychology), family participation, dolphins, warm water and a peaceful location to create a therapeutic environment aimed at maximizing each child's potential within a short period.

With individualized consultations for families, parents leave feeling that they are equipped with the tools necessary to implement strategies at home in order to continue progressing toward reaching the highest potential for their child. A series of individualized consultations give families the tools to help their child to continue progressing once they return home.

"Dave loved the dolphins and would play with them all day if he were given the chance!" says Tom, as he describes what a typical therapy session might consist of.

In his son's sessions, a group of about six children would begin with a warm-up in which they would sing together while bouncing on Swiss balls.

Then, working individually with a therapist, each child would have to answer questions, point to pictures or say a specific word according to the particular exercise. The lesson would take place on a deck next to the sea where the dolphins were. Diving in and swimming holding on to the dolphin's dorsal fin, or having one's feet pushed along by the dolphin's nose, were the "rewards" that the child would earn if he worked well. The sequence would be repeated until the end of the 40-minute session.

"The therapists are very human but also very demanding," Tom continues. "They are very good at educating and motivating the children. Actually, you cannot have education without motivation. They expect success with the children they treat and refuse to take 'no' for an answer."

Tom and Mary were so satisfied with Dave's progress that they took him back to Florida again after that. Last year a DHT centre opened in the Caribbean (Grand Cayman), so in April of this year, they took the family there. Now Dave is 10 years old, but the results keep coming -- slowly and without miracles, of course. He now speaks, in his own manner, and he uses sign language and a special computer. His behavior has become much calmer since he got back.

"It would be great if there were a therapy centre closer to home (we live in Switzerland), where we could take Dave more regularly," sighs Tom. However, they stay in touch by phone and email with the therapists, who are always at their disposal.

"Unquestionably," concludes this father, who is totally dedicated to doing the best he can for his family, "DHT is not cheap. But we strongly recommend it to anyone who has a child with disabilities. Even if it means making some financial sacrifices."