In a novel effort to help autistic children learn developmental skills, Elephants are being used in Thailand as part of a therapy program. Parents have observed improvement in their kids’ behavior after interaction with the gentle animals and this first-of-its-kind animal therapy hopes to help more children this way all over the world.
The Thai Elephant project was founded by Wittaya Khem-nguad who says,
“parents see improvements after the elephant therapy and that gives them this hope.”
A presentation on the Thai program was recently made at the University of Missouri Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Rebecca Johnson, who heads the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction said that a small observation of four boys for three weeks showed positive results and more research was definitely needed in the area.
Wittaya was an advertising professional before he started working with elephants. Traditionally the animals were used in Thailand as teak loggers, for movement etc. but in modern times they were losing their usefulness and therefore Wittaya thought to help the animals.
He had read about other animal therapies like horses being used to treat patients and therefore he approached Chiang Mai University, where Nuntanee Satiansukpong, head of its occupational therapy department suggested using elephants to treat autistic kids.
Autism is a condition that is incurable and often leads to faltered speech, attention deficit and developmental problems among kids. Therapy though can show marked improvement in improving speech, social behaviour and learning skills.
Nuntanee thought elephants could be the perfect helpers for the therapy because Thai kids were familiar with the animal and also because the animals were themselves very intelligent and could ‘provide the rich, attention-grabbing “sensory menu” beneficial to the autistic, while the animals’ intelligence and other traits allow for a wide range of interactions with humans.’
She planned out six therapy sessions and then went to the government-run Thai Elephant Conservation Center near the northern city of Lampang. Nua Un and Prathida, two gentle female elephants were chosen for the task.
The therapy sessions have been divided into various task and interaction sessions. The children first follow step-by-step instruction to make a food list and buy bananas, sugar cane, corn, sunflower seeds etc. from a mock store with real money. They then offer it to the animals. If the animal rejects the food they return to the store to buy an alternative. This according to Nuntanee teaches them flexibility.
Nua Un the 7 year old elephant then helps the kids avert their fear of touching of feeling sticky and rough textures when they brush and bath her. The kids also play with the elephants enhancing their group activity skills. They mount on the animal and give proper commands to move them. This helps their memory and also improves balance and posture. There are also various art activities in the therapy to improve creativity and imagination.
“The elephant is such a big stimulus it can keep the attention of an individual longer, and since it is such a wonderful animal bonding can occur,” says Nuntanee. “If we can drag the children out of their own world they will be better,” she says.
The therapy has been a success as parents accompanying their kids to the centre have observed improvements.
Saithong, mother to 14 year old Kuk-kik says her son doesn’t usually “join activities with other people. He would be by himself. This is the first time he is not.”
Kong’s mother Keesorn said the therapy helps make her son more patient, gentler and willing to share.
The therapy is presently being offered only as an eight day free session because of lack of funds but parents hope they can continue to bring their children and get help from the elephants. The idea to involve gentle and intelligent animals like the elephants to help autistic kids is definitely worth continuing.