Special Needs: Tapping into Natural Florida for Therapeutic Treatments

    By Saundra Amrhein

    As the pod of dolphins breaks the surface of gin-colored waters, or swims within inches of their faces, families on boats or snorkeling off the coast of Northwest Florida gasp in amazement. And often, for the young family member in their midst with a developmental disability, something seems to crack open a door to an interior world, reaching them in a unique way.

    Beginning in 1997, Panama City Beach’s Water Planet has offered dolphin therapy programs with wild dolphins for children with developmental delays and physical disabilities, emotional challenges, and chronic or terminal illnesses.

    It is one of the dozens of such programs across Florida – including equine and forest therapy – that taps into the state’s surrounding wildlife and natural landscapes to complement therapeutic treatments for autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and Down syndrome.

    These sites draw national and international visitors to take part in experiences that cater to the whole family, but go beyond Florida attractions that provide special-needs-accessible facilities. In addition to recreational and educational programs for the general public, these sites also have developed camps or sessions that work hand-in-hand with therapeutic regimens and, in Water Planet’s case, build upon the special human attraction to dolphins to aid in the healing process.

    “Dolphins are part of the animal kingdom, and they appeal to most people, that’s why we selected dolphins,” said Denis Richard, president of Water Planet, where interactions with wild dolphins in their natural environment are combined with expressive art, massage and craniosacral therapy as well as music, aquatic bodywork and occupational therapy.

    “It’s not that dolphins have the intention to heal humans,” Richard said. “I think every beautiful representation of nature will promote this healing where communication can take place… What we try to use is the power of nature. We facilitate an experience, we do not create it. We just put the elements together so that this can happen.”

    Richard emphasized that Water Planet does not claim that it can change or improve the course of a child’s disability or that contact with wild dolphins provides a miracle cure. Instead, its philosophy is that this unique experience with free-ranging dolphins can capture children’s imagination, stimulating their self-expression and self-esteem.

    Parents of children with special needs such as autism have reported back that it does that and more, noting improvements in their children’s behavior, attention and communication – and their own approach to the entire family dynamic – following what they describe as life-changing visits to Water Planet.

    The special bond between humans and horses also has been shown to be transformative for people with special needs. Florida’s landscape and year-round warm climate make the Sunshine State a hospitable place for horse ranches. The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International counts roughly 40 certified member centers across Florida, a state with one of the highest numbers of centers. (See pathintl.org) In addition to recreational programs and riding camps for the general public, the centers offer a mix of equine-assisted activities and therapies for veterans, active-duty military personnel, and adults and children with physical, cognitive and emotional challenges.

    The list following is a sample of locations throughout Florida that tap into the state’s natural environment and wildlife to offer residents and visitors a therapeutic experience.


    Water Planet is one of the dozens of such programs across Florida – including equine and forest therapy – that taps into the state’s surrounding wildlife and natural landscapes to complement therapeutic treatments for autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and Down syndrome.

    - Water Planet


    Marion Therapeutic Riding Association in Ocala is a premier accredited center with PATH International. Located on 33 acres in the heart of Florida’s horse country, MTRA has provided therapeutic horseback riding or equine-assisted therapy for more than three decades. Clients include everyone from stroke survivors; riders with Multiple Sclerosis; veterans; at-risk youth; abuse, trauma, and sexual assault victims; and children and adults with mental, physical and emotional challenges or disabilities. Programs include therapeutic horseback riding, dressage, games on horseback, trail courses, equine-assisted mental health and learning, Special Olympics and more. Benefits to clients run from improved balance, strength and flexibility to increased self-esteem and other cognitive, behavioral and psychological gains. For more information, visit mtraocala.org.

    Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater and its famous resident dolphin Winter have inspired countless people around the world with physical or developmental disabilities. After news circled the globe about Winter’s dramatic rescue in 2005 from entanglement in a crab trap, followed by her dogged recovery, loss of her tail and adaptation to a prosthetic replacement – children and adults with artificial limbs began streaming to the aquarium to visit her. Wounded veterans, children with autism, and adults and kids who had lost limbs to accidents or injuries became ardent fans, motivated by Winter’s perseverance. Some were granted special close encounters with dolphins during their visits. Since then, two movies based on Winter’s story – Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2 – have reached millions more. The aquarium is a regular stop for groups like Camp No limits – a Maine-based non-profit that provides camps for children with limb loss, offering therapeutic programs that incorporate physical and occupation therapy. For more information about the aquarium, visit seewinter.com.

    The Griffin Ranch in Fort McCoy just west of the Ocala National Forest, is located on 30 acres filled with ponds, pastures, woods and rustic guest cabins. Guests can enjoy kayaking, biking, and close encounters with black bears, deer, red tail hawks, Sandhill cranes and other wildlife. Wwner Carl Griffin also offers a form of forest therapy known as “forest bathing.”

    Inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku, forest therapy is a “research-based framework for supporting healing and wellness through immersion in forests and other natural environments,” according to the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. Demonstrated health benefits have included improvements in the cardiovascular and immune systems. For guests who are interested in forest bathing, Griffin guides them to take in the depth of the forest by teaching about its edible plants, species of birds and their communication patterns, and by sharing mindfulness breathing and walking techniques. “You become one with (the forest) and understand it,” he said. “It’s a total cleansing of the soul.” For more information, visit: thegriffinranch.com

    Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center in Loxahatchee in Palm Beach County is a premiere accredited center with PATH International. Located on a 15-acre farm, it offers therapeutic riding and carriage driving, and equine-assisted learning and psychotherapy for people of all ages with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities. Equine-assisted learning and psychotherapy consist of unmounted activities that use the horses as partners in life-skills lessons, promoting independence for people with intellectual and emotional disabilities. Goals can include independent participation in the equestrian Special Olympics. For more information, visit vinceremos.org.

    Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo works with wounded veterans and adults, children and families dealing with developmental and physical disabilities as well as emotional challenges and chronic or terminal illnesses. Therapy programs include observation of the resident dolphins and in- water therapy sessions; visits to the touch tank; lectures about marine life; guided swims with the dolphins; and artistic relaxation sessions. For more information, visit:  islanddolphincare.org.

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