Thai Elephant-assisted Therapy Project Why Elephants?
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Why Elephants?

         The elephant has long been a symbol of good fortune in Thailand. Elephants have been used in spiritual rituals for over 3000 years. It is said that these powerful creatures were integral in the construction of important historical sites such as Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. In more recent years, elephants were used in the logging industry. However, when logging became illegal in the 1980’s, many elephants were put out of work. Additionally, shrinking natural habitats and illegal poaching of elephants for their ivory tusks threaten the wild population. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were approximately 100,000 elephants living in the wild and captivity. Today there are less than 5,000. Most are now used in the tourism industry for elephant trekking and circus-like entertainment. Some are led around by their mahout (elephant caregiver) through traffic and busy city streets to beg for money.


          Many autistic people like to watch constantly moving objects, because it stimulates reticular formation function in the brain, which governs, amongst other things, sensory awareness, spatial awareness, posture, balance, concentration, and the discrimination of meaningful from meaningless stimuli. This is necessary in order to attend to the external environment, including touch, sight and sound.


          The gigantic appearance of elephants , up to 9 plus feet tall and 4 plus tons, coupled with the habitual constant movement of their enormous ears, trunk, tail and legs to brush away annoying insects and balance body temperature, provides the stimulus necessary to prepare the brain for this learning process of response to external stimuli. Also, a full-grown elephant can consume up to 250 kilos of vegetation per day, making foraging and eating an all-day activity, and they are normally gentle, tolerant creatures. These factors combine to make well-trained elephants ideal subjects for people with autism to learn to interact and care for them.


         How can elephants help children with ASD?


          Animals have been used therapeutically for more than 2 centuries. Previous studies have used dogs, dolphins, lamas, and horses in therapy with children with ASD. Elephant-assisted occupational therapy is a unique and culturally relevant approach because of the historical importance of elephants to Thai people. The approach incorporates the participant’s interests and provides a special opportunity to interact with and care for elephants.


         Elephants are ideal animals to be used in therapy with children with ASD. They are naturally gentle and affectionate creatures. They communicate nonverbally and can become very attached to their human caregivers. Since children with ASD experience challenges with communication, they too use nonverbal behavior to make sense of their environment. Mutual respect is emphasized and participants are encouraged to work together to complete activities such as feeding and bathing the elephants. Interacting with elephants allows the participants to practice the skills needed for everyday communication.


         Elephant-assisted occupational therapy has also been found to support effective sensory processing. Sensory processing is the way that people take in and understand sensory information such as sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Some children with ASD experience challenges in sensory processing, which can negatively affect their participation in meaningful activities. For example, some children have difficulty with tactile (touch) input and may dislike being touched, refuse to eat certain food textures, or dislike having their hair or face washed. During an elephant-assisted occupational therapy session, children have the opportunity to feed and bathe elephants, which promotes tolerance of new tactile experiences. Additionally, activities such as riding the elephants and playing games improve motor planning. Motor planning is the ability to plan and carry out an activity from beginning to end. All children need effective motor planning to be able to perform activities such as getting dressed, brushing teeth, and washing hands.


         Elephant-assisted occupational therapy provides many other benefits for children ASD. Activities such as riding elephants require core strength and have been found to improve balance and posture. Most importantly, activities performed in therapy have been found to transfer to improved functioning at home and school. Parents and teachers report that participants have improved attention, social skills, communication, and independence with daily living skills. Thus, the program truly supports participants’ abilities to do the activities they want and need to do.


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