Marine parks in Turkey are charging British parents with autistic children thousands of pounds for unproven dolphin therapy “treatment”.
Some of the centres claim sonar signals “activate brain cells” if children touch heads with the mammals.
Staff at one waterpark visited by the Sunday People even claimed children unable to speak had uttered their first words after contact with dolphins.
Dozens of other parks offer services online – some claiming therapy can beat cancer and aid people with Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The centres, which also host cruel dolphin shows, charge people up to £2,500, assuring parents that their child will see significant benefits.
But experts accuse them of offering false hope.
Prof Richard Mills, a consultant for AT-Autism and former research director at the National Autistic Society, said: “It’s exploiting people to spend a lot of money on something where there is no evidence of any benefits.”
We visited three parks in or near Antalya – Aksu Dolphinarium, Dolphinland and Dolphin Park Kemer.
Aksu said British people “come more and more”.
Kemer said many come from the UK. Dolphinland told us “not so many English” people come.
All three parks claimed potential benefits for autistic people.
To examine the claims we took autism awareness campaigner Emma Dalmayne, 44, and her autistic children Damien, 12, and Skylar, seven.
Emma, who is also autistic, was horrified when she saw a therapy session at Dolphinland.
She said: “Don’t waste your money, it’s a scam.”
Emma was told by Aksu staff that her children would only show benefits six months later – at which point she should buy another ten-day course for £2,500 per child to maintain progress.
One therapist bragged how staff would coax her kids to swim even if distressed, adding: “Even if he cries, it’s normal for him to cry.”
Emma said: “When I heard them talking about my child’s brain it was horrifying.
“It’s yet another scam to fleece naive parents who are wasting thousands that could be spent on a more beneficial pastime that would give the children tools to cope in the world.”
None of the centres we spoke to guaranteed improvement or a cure.
But all three said there were long-term benefits for autism and tried to sell Emma ten sessions.
Aksu staff said: “It cannot heal but it can make it better. It’s not a cure, it’s just a treatment but you can make it better and dolphin therapy makes it better.”
A rep showed images of children touching heads with the mammals to exchange “waves”.
He said: “Electromagnetic waves help activate the brain of children. In some cases they can lose symptoms.”
A therapist at Dolphinland told us the animals have “signals and vibrations” and “they send these signals everywhere”.
She claimed: “For the kids with autism it helps so much. We have the kids that come every year and they’re better every year.
“If they don’t speak, for example, they start talking after therapy. Yes!”
Emma says Damien and Skylar have sensory issues which can lead to “flapping, gritting of teeth, spinning and repeating things to calm down”.
When she asked if these symptoms could be helped by dolphins, the therapist at Dolphinland said: “Yes of course” – adding that the children could lose “some of the bad energy”.
Asked outright if it would “heal” a lot of her children’s behaviours, Emma was told: “We hope so. Not all the kids are better. But you may try.”
We saw a session at Dolphinland, where the creatures are also made to perform tricks like throwing balls and catching hoops in shows.
Twin girls aged four spent 30 minutes with two “therapists” and two dolphins in their 32 x 25 metre pool.
One child screamed and cried as the dolphins rolled over so the girls could stroke them.
Their mother, from Craiova, Romania, said they were on day seven of ten and admitted her twins were “afraid” of the animals.
She said: “We need to wait six months but we are coming in August again.”
Watching the therapy session left Emma distressed.
The mum of five, from Plumstead, South London, said: “It was heartbreaking to see animals in pools with children screaming and crying. It’s cruelty mixed with fake therapy.
“My children’s reactions were horror, anger and sadness for the children we saw.
“I had to leave and cry. My son asked, why are they doing this? He’s very upset.”
When asked if Dolphin Park Kemer practitioners were medically trained and experienced with autism, the rep there said: “He’s experienced in making therapy, in how to stand in the water and play with the dolphin.
“It’s for the nervous system. Therapists stay in the water with the child… when you put your head underwater you can hear the signal. Honestly you don’t need a doctor. I can say this. This is something alternative for the child.”
When Emma asked if therapy could stop her children “flapping and making noises” he replied “yes”, before adding: “I cannot guarantee you will see these effects, nobody can say this.”
Asked again if it is a “good treatment for autism”, he insisted: “Yes, yes, yes.”
Prof Mills said: “Dolphin therapy promotes a narrative that autism can be cured. We know it can’t. We suspect any benefit from swimming with them is social. To take it to a pseudo-scientific level about brainwaves is too far.”
We visited all three parks in March. They closed because of Covid but have reopened and are offering therapy.
A spokesman for Aksu Dolphinarium admitted: “There is no medical side of this, it’s not proved yet. But there is a business side for us.”
He insisted the therapy works for “nearly 100 German families” that visit regularly. He described the therapy as a “love story between animal lovers” and defended the conditions in which the dolphins are kept.
Dolphinland said: “If it is a question on how therapy works and the scientific background and the therapy, you can approach me and write me and email and read my documents on the internet. If you want information on dolphin therapy, read our website.”
Kemer Dolphin Park has yet to comment.