Researchers have long preached the health benefits of spending time with animals but can interacting with dolphins really help young patients with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or autism?

That is the premise behind Dolphin Assisted Therapy, a controversial and expensive treatment being offered to families desperate for a new approach in hope of breaking through to their loved ones.

Peter and Wendy Garrish, of Montreal, had heard some impressive anecdotes about the power of dolphin therapy. “Some kids started talking after, some kid started walking. There was a little boy who started eating after,” said Peter, in an interview with W5’s Lloyd Robertson.

The stories drew their interest because their seven-year-old daughter, Alex, is severely autistic. She is largely non-verbal, has aversions to many foods and is prone to temper tantrums. Alex has taken part in various conventional therapies throughout her young life but nothing like dolphin assisted therapy. That all changed in March 2012 when, thanks to a charity called Dolphin Aid, she and her family travelled to the Caribbean island of Curacao, where Alex became the first Canadian to take part in a two-week program at the Curacao Dolphin Therapy Center.

Without the help of Dolphin Aid, the therapy was financially beyond the family’s means. The two-week program costs $8,000, not including flights, accommodation and food, which can total several thousand dollars more.

According to Marco Kuerschner, Head Therapist at the Center, the dolphins help to focus children’s attention and also act as a powerful reward when the child accomplishes a new task.

Over the course of the two weeks, Alex worked daily with a two-member team: behavior therapist Gerwin Bijker and his dolphin partner, Leena, one of five dolphins working at the Therapy Centre.

The first part of each morning was spent out of the water as Gerwin guided Alex through intensive one-on-one therapy sessions. The real fun came later, in the dolphin pool, when Lena helped to re-enforce the lessons learned in the morning.

Using cue cards Alex had to speak the word for each activity she wanted to do after which she could play with Leena. For example, after saying the words “upside down”, Leena would show off her tail. When Alex said “ball,” she got to play catch with the dolphin.

Working with Gerwin and Leena, Alex seemed to make incremental progress during the two weeks of intensive therapy. The number of tantrums decreased dramatically and, according to her parents, she began communicating in ways she never did before.

“I was in the middle of the pool and I put my arms out and I just said ‘Alex come,’ So she turned around and she leaped towards me and when she came on me she held me and she said, ‘Swim with daddy,’ recalled Peter. “And she never said anything like that whatsoever to me before.”

While parents who watch their children seem to respond in new and uplifting ways, others are skeptical of the value of Dolphin Assisted Therapy. Lori Marino, a research scientist with Emory University in Atlanta has reviewed 20 years of studies on the therapy and has concluded it has no benefit.

“Dolphin Assisted Therapy is a scam,” said Marino, in an interview with W5’s Lloyd Robertson. “There is no scientific evidence to suggest that swimming with dolphins is therapeutic.”

But Peter and Wendy Garish were convinced there had been real progress in threating Alex’s autism by the end of the two weeks, insisting she was communicating better than ever and equally important, had fewer tantrums.

“How do we find the funds to come back and give her this opportunity again?” asked Wendy.