Communing With Dolphins A Florida-based SLP works with clients alongside some unusual motivators: marine mammals that can’t be released back into the wild. In the Limelight
In the Limelight  |   January 01, 2016
Communing With Dolphins
Author Notes
  • Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for The ASHA Leader.
    Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for The ASHA Leader.×
Article Information
Development / Speech, Voice & Prosodic Disorders / School-Based Settings / Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / In the Limelight
In the Limelight   |   January 01, 2016
Communing With Dolphins
The ASHA Leader, January 2016, Vol. 21, 22-23. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.21012016.22
The ASHA Leader, January 2016, Vol. 21, 22-23. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.21012016.22
Name: Janet Flowers, EdD, CCC-SLP
Title: Founder, The Dr. Janet Flowers Institute; private practitioner
Hometown: Panama City Beach, Florida
A dolphin jumps high into the air—and a new neural pathway is emblazoned in the brain of a child struggling to speak.
The “emotionally arousing” experience creates lasting memories, explains speech-language pathologist Janet Flowers. “I’ve worked with some clients who never communicated verbally before, and they say or sign ‘mo’ or ‘peez’ during our first session!” she says.
Flowers began integrating dolphins—and other marine mammals—into short-term intensive treatment with clients more than 20 years ago. The project started when a local oceanographer saw an article about her work in a new public school program for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The oceanographer ran a small marine park for animals that couldn’t be released back into the wild because of injuries, and offered to let Flowers regularly bring her students to the park.
Some digging by Flowers revealed the work of Betsy Smith, an educational anthropologist who conducted early investigations into the benefits of having children with disabilities work with dolphins. So began her ongoing research on how and why splashing in the water or touching a dolphin elicits words from formerly silent kids.
Flowers describes herself as a traditional SLP who just happens to have a marine park setting for sessions. But there’s a little more to it than that.
Flowers initially spent 50 hours with marine mammal trainers learning safe, responsible ways to interact with these animals. She also worked closely with that oceanographer/park director—Brandy Siebenaler—who became her mentor. Although Siebenaler died not long after Flowers launched her institute, Flowers continues to work only with dolphins legally considered “non-releasable” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Eventually, her due diligence and weekly visits with school students led Flowers to pursue a doctorate in applied research at the University of West Florida. Her thesis explores various approaches to incorporating marine mammals and dogs in speech-language treatment. And she took a yearlong sabbatical to visit similar programs. She says her research “mainly looked at response time, time on task and expressive communication skills.”

Flowers describes herself as a traditional SLP who just happens to have a marine park setting for sessions. But there’s a little more to it than that.

Collecting data in those areas remains a primary objective in her now-established program. Data collectors—some of whom are retired SLPs—attend each session. Flowers teaches them what data to collect and how to document the information. Most of that data continues to impress Flowers.
“Dolphins respond really quickly, so that’s on my side,” she says. “Plus most kids love water, which inspires them to attempt tasks they never tried before just for a chance to interact with a marine mammal or splash around.”
Sessions for Flowers’ short-term intensive clients last almost an hour (see below for a description). Clients from around the world travel to her institute—she’s worked with kids from South Africa, Australia, Scotland, Brazil, Mexico, England and 15 U.S. states and Puerto Rico. She purposely keeps this part of her practice small, however; only 20 percent of her clients come through the institute. The rest are early-intervention clients seen in their homes.
Before the families arrive in Florida, Flowers talks several times to the parents, the child’s home SLP and anyone else involved. The marine mammal trainers working with Flowers undergo prep sessions to know what to expect and how to react. All of this prior input helps her determine a focused goal for the week.
“We narrow the child’s goals down to something specific we think we can achieve in a short period of time,” Flowers says. “The clarity of our goal is the key to our sessions.”
Only one client visits the institute at a time, participating in sessions for a week to 10 days. After each session, which parents must attend, Flowers spends time with the family to help them understand her approach, so they can continue to elicit communication from their child. This time with caregivers greatly enhances carryover.
Many clients return within 24 months for follow-up treatment. Those return visits help Flowers to collect data on how and why this program yields results. So far, all returning clients maintained the skill they learned during their first visit.
In her quest to understand the science behind her success, Flowers discovered the work of Larry Cahill, whose extensive research on emotional memory informs her program.
“The emotional center of the brain can also send skills and knowledge to long-term memory,” she says. Flowers adds that seeing a dolphin perform immediately after achieving a goal generates memories through the brain’s amygdala. This path differs from the traditional way of learning new skills, which involves activating the hippocampus.
In other words, Flowers clarifies, “If you’re teaching a skill at the time you’re having a dolphin jump for a child, they’ll likely remember it!”
Creating Routine

After 20 years of modifications, Janet Flowers generated a routine process for working with marine mammals and her short-term intensive clients.

(Note: In addition to working only at marine wildlife parks that house only legally nonreleaseable marine mammals, Flowers also adds that her program is formally approved by the International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association. In addition, each marine mammal she works with has a personal veterinarian with extensive marine mammal background on site.)

  • Each session includes me, a trained data collector, a marine mammal trainer, the child with his/her family and a marine mammal—usually a dolphin. At the beginning of each session, I check in with the family on the child’s behavior from the day before to learn of any additional obstacles we may be working through that day. At the conclusion of each daily session, I review with the family any progress made toward our established goal along with all data collected during the session.

  • At the conclusion of all sessions, I verbally review our goal and achievements. We follow up with a detailed written report sent to the family with copies for the primary SLP or other related service providers so that our work can be incorporated into the child’s day to day routine and speech therapy to assist in ongoing communication improvements.

  • During five to 10 days of treatment, we might terminate our work with a child who remains nonresponsive or doesn’t make progress in our particular session environment. In these cases, we offer suggestions for future therapy as our mission is to help children achieve their communication goals and thrive.

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January 2016
Volume 21, Issue 1