Thai Elephant-assisted Therapy Project Voice of Allie Salamone MOTR/L
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Voice of Allie Salamone MOTR/L article

Dr. Nuntanee, OT staff, and OT students,

I not only thoroughly enjoyed my time spent with you, but I was also thoroughly impressed. I believe that your program will one day become something that every person in the world knows about because of the amazing tasks you are accomplishing, not only in alleviating the characteristics of autism, but also in ensuring the importance of elephants. I have written a little about my perception of the camp to share with my friends and family about why I feel TETP is so incredible: the project is run by occupational therapists from Chiang Mai University.  The goal is both to treat autistic individuals and also to raise awareness of the need for elephant welfare and conservation.  At the elephant camp in Lampang, some of the estimated 200,000 individuals with autism spectrum disorder in Thailand come to participate in this revolutionary form of animal-assisted therapy.  How in the world can an elephant have anything to do with helping alleviate the characteristics found in those with autism?  Well, I can tell you!  

Many autistic people like to watch constantly moving objects because it stimulates reticular formation function in the brain. Reticular formation is in charge of sensory awareness, spatial awareness, posture, balance, concentration, and the discrimination of meaningful from meaningless stimuli.  All of these things are necessary in order to attend to the environment around us through our senses of touch, sight and sound.  Therefore, for an autistic individual, the gigantic appearance of an elephant, coupled with the habitual constant movement of their enormous ears and trunk and tail and legs, provides the stimulus necessary to prepare the brain for this learning process of response to external stimuli.   Awesome!  This is how the story goes. Parents of children with autism hear about TETP and they get in touch with the OT staff at Chiang Mai University.  They come into the clinic and a pre-assessment is completed. And then they come to camp for 8 days!  Each child is paired with a mentor, who is either an OT or an OT student, for the duration of the program.  This allows one person to know that child well and be able to work towards individual goals and it also gives the child an opportunity to develop and build a relationship.  

Here’s what’s on tap:
-Ride the elephants: postural control, vestibular balance, speech by giving commands
-Bathe the elephants: sensation, task organization
-Play games with the elephants: sequencing, direction following, experiencing winning and losing, visual motor skills
-Buy food for the elephants: money management, one-on-one interaction, eye contact
-Feed the elephants: sensory processing, body awareness through reacting to the elephant
-Eat lunch: decision making, oral motor skills, manners
-Complete a teamwork task: peer interaction, gross motor skills
-Do a craft activity: motor planning, manual dexterity, attention to task
-Participate in a relaxation session: sensory regulation

Before and after each new part of the day the OTs discuss with the kids to aid with transition, a skill children with autism tend to struggle with.  Even though the daily schedule provides consistency, the elephants, their peers, and new games/activities provide spontaneity, so the kids have to balance their environment and learn to tolerate change.  Two huge things that i am obsessed with: 1.  Their families are allowed and encouraged to come along every single day, so the OTs can collaborate with them and educate them and the carryover at home is destined to be great. 2.  The therapy session promotes play all day long.  Playing with an autistic child is the best thing you can do for him or her because it is the most natural way for him or her to learn these skills.  So all of these kids with all of their different problem areas are able to benefit from this program.  Their research is showing significant improvement in social skills and motor planning in individuals with ASD, and, it’s showing at least some improvement in sensory processing, adaptive behavior, and postural control and balance in every single case.  I think TETP is going to blow up and become this huge thing that everybody knows about someday because it is so impressive. They are doing such good things. If we could do something like this in the U.S., it would be so beneficial. Even without the elephants, to have a 2 week intensive 8-5 program for kiddos with autism would be phenomenal. Dr. Nuntanee and her team fundraise and seek out sponsors in order for each child and their family to participate in the program free of cost.  How great are they!

In light of all of this i just want to make sure people know how beneficial animal-assisted therapy is. It’s not a joke. It is proven to do so many things and I am an even stronger supporter of it now.  If you ever have a loved one suffering with something and you think you’ve tried all your options, don’t forget about the animals!  All kinds of animals are used in the U.S. and they help to decrease heart rate and blood pressure, increase strength and balance, improve cognition, reduce fear and anxiety, and have an overall calming influence. I hope that my perception on your camp provides you with encouragement and motivation to continue on your journey of TETP! I wish you all the best in your future projects and hope to stay in touch!


Allie Salamone MOTR/L

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