Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often experience sensory processing challenges and attention malfunctions, which predispose them to process information differently and with more difficulty than children without ASD. Over the years, extensive research has demonstrated that dolphins can help children with ASD improve their social interaction and communication skills.
Singapore has been using live dolphin therapy via The Pink Dolphins Encounter project for some years now. In that programme, live Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (also simply referred to as pink dolphins) are used to help children with ASD. Intriguingly, these animals start off life grey in colour, gradually becoming pink as they mature. Pink dolphins are an endangered species, and their population is fairly small worldwide. Today, they can only be found off the coast of China and South East Asia.
However, despite its proven effectiveness and popularity, live dolphin therapy is relatively expensive. For this reason, researchers in Singapore have developed virtual pink dolphins as an alternative and more affordable way to support children with ASD. This was made possible by the joint efforts of Nanyang Technological University, the National Institute of Education and Underwater World Singapore. With the sponsorship of the Singapore Millennium Foundation (SMF), a team came together to combine forces in the fields of engineering, digital media, and special needs education. The researchers currently work very closely with special needs schools, both locally and internationally.
With technical support from the research team, a special needs school under the tutelage of the Asia Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA) has recently set up a 3D Dolphin Lab in Singapore to assist their students with learning and social communication difficulties. Children spend an hour a week using the 3D dolphin software to act as the dolphins’ trainer, which helps them pick up communication skills while improving their alertness.
This Lunar New Year, Dr Tony Tan, Singapore’s 7th President, visited the school and participated in an interactive lesson with the children in the 3D Lab.