IT'S SATURDAY morning at a dolphinarium in Shenzhen. Hu Yueting, an autistic child, looks slightly alarmed to be so close to two of its inhabitants, Bao Bao and Xun Xun. Her father, Hu Gang - who is holding her in the pool - pats one as it swims by, saying: 'Look 'Chong Chong' [Yueting's nickname]! It's a dolphin. Don't worry. You can touch it.' Curious, the girl stretches out her hand, but quickly withdraws it when the dolphin opens its mouth.
Back home, Hu notices behavioural changes in Chong Chong, who has speech difficulties. The 11-year-old is more energetic than usual; she mumbles and laughs. Hu believes the turnaround is a result of the morning swim. As with some therapists and psychologists, and New Agers who ascribe healing powers to the creatures, Hu believes interaction with dolphins will help his daughter speak.
Hu's faith comes from reports worldwide that claim dolphin therapy has enabled children with mental disabilities to utter their first words and helped cancer patients go into remission. For two decades, a small school of believers has argued that swimming with dolphins stimulates the immune systems of people suffering neurological disorders and mobility problems. They've advocated one-on-one sessions with therapists, and rewarding the patients with a swim with dolphins if they complete certain tasks. Some children have reportedly learned things at four times their normal speed. There are also more outlandish claims that dolphins use their sonar to repair brain damage in disabled children.
Although scientists have dismissed dolphin treatment as nothing more than a recreational pastime, Hu refuses to be put off. Hu started researching dolphin therapy about two years ago in a desperate search for ways to treat his daughter. He then approached aquarium curator Zhou Yunxin at Shenzhen Sea World in Xiao Mei Sha to ask if Chong Chong could swim with the cetaceans once a week.
Zhou, who specialises in marine biology, gave the nod and offered to accompany Chong Chong during each 30-minute swimming session at the popular beachside aquarium that is home to a variety of marine animals, including four bottlenose dolphins.
'It is not professional therapy we are providing because we don't have the proper training and experience,' says Zhou. 'But we encourage Chong Chong to make some body movements [such as stretching and other simple exercises] and then let her swim with the dolphins.'
She adds: 'Dolphins are unique because they help children with mental problems relax. Some say a dolphin's sonar stimulates their brain cells. We're not sure it's true but it's not harmful to swim with dolphins.'
Although the therapy is new to China and considered unscientific in the West, Hu claims that after about 30 visits over two years, Chong Chong has shown physical and mental improvements.
'Before therapy, her arms appeared numb and didn't move much when she walked. Since last year, they have shown more movement. She has also picked things up more quickly than before. She has recently learned to throw rubbish into a bin. She also knows how to put abacus beads on to a stick one by one. That's a game her mum taught her.'
Hu, a quality controller at a factory, admits there could be other factors at work. 'But from a statistical point of view, her rate of learning has risen sharply since starting therapy,' he says.
When Chong Chong's story was reported on the mainland, it caught the attention of parents of mentally disabled children in Shenzhen and Hong Kong. About 10 children from the Special Economic Zone, aged between two and 12, have joined the programme, which takes place every Saturday and Sunday morning. Zhou says the parents of two children from Hong Kong have made inquiries. Unlike Chong Chong and two other children who sometimes get into the water, the newcomers only sit by the pool and touch the dolphins.
The Dolphin Rehabilitation and Therapy Centre was officially opened at Sea World in March. The 'treatment' is free, although participants have to pay 388 yuan (HK$363) a year, to cover the entrance fee to the aquarium. The amount is dwarfed by some therapy providers in the United States who charge more than US$2,500 a week.
'The idea of the therapy is to motivate children to learn things by having them swim with dolphins but it takes time,' Zhou says. 'Some are frightened and it would be a punishment rather than reward if we made them swim.'
With the rise in the number of young participants and a shortage of staff, one-to-one sessions are no longer possible at Sea World, but parents believe there's much to be gained by simply having their children in close contact with the animals.
Sea World found in Internet research that there is a theory the ultrasound emitted from dolphins could help heal the brain cells of children with mental problems.
'There have been many reports supporting this,' says X-ray surgeon Li Huoliang, who has enrolled his two-year-old autistic son in the therapy programme.
But therapists and scientists in the West are sceptical. The Dolphin-Human Therapy Centre in Florida - a pioneer in the field that claims to have run therapy sessions for more than 1,000 disabled children - says dolphin therapy means more than having children swimming with cetaceans.
Christina Collins, director of media and public relations at the centre and a former therapist, says the theory behind the therapy is that a child's attention will improve if they earn a meaningful reward - in this case, interaction with dolphins.
'It is not therapy if the children only sit by the edge of the pool and touch the dolphins,' Collins says. 'We use dolphins as a motivator. The children have to perform well to be able to swim with the dolphins.'
There is no credible research to show that hugging a dolphin is more effective than petting a puppy, but the Florida centre has seen breakthroughs in some children's mental abilities after receiving therapy. In 1998, an eight-year-old boy at the centre apparently uttered his first word, 'in', indicating he wanted to get back in the water after a few hours of play with dolphins. 'Dolphins are not only beautiful to look at, they have unconditional love and children become highly motivated,' says Collins. 'The therapy can shorten the amount of time that children process information.'
US-based behavioural ecologist Rachel Smolker, who wrote To Touch A Wild Dolphin after 13 years studying dolphins at Australia's Monkey Mia beach in Western Australia, is also unconvinced. 'I'm sceptical but anything positive can boost the immune system. There's just this funny focus on dolphins. Maybe a nice walk in a beautiful natural area would have the same effect,' she says.
There is a healing effect in swimming with them, she believes, but the same may may be true from interacting with other animals. 'There's a healing effect in doing things you enjoy. A dog or a puppy can be therapeutic for a child, too. A lot of children don't have the opportunity to explore nature very much and that kind of experience is therapeutic.'
But Hu Gang is undeterred. 'Even if dolphin therapy doesn't work, it's still worth it,' he says. 'We parents can't afford to miss a chance to help our children. As long as there is a ray of hope, we will try it.'