By Richard Jerome
Updated October 25, 1993 12:00 PM

STANDING ON THE DOCK, 13-YEAR-old Steven Wright, pale and impassive, looks so uninterested as to be nearly inanimate. But then a sea creature cavorts into view, leaping, twisting, diving in the lagoon below. And Steven, his expression transformed by a broad grin, comes alive.

Steven, who was born with Down syndrome and suffered a seizure shortly afterward that further impaired his learning ability, is getting a dose of therapy that could bring him to a new level of responsiveness. The treatment is dolphins. Administered by Miami psychologist David Nathanson and carried out by 13 finned assistants at the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, Fla., it seems to be getting results with severly handicapped patients.

Nathanson, 48, starts Steven’s first session with a hug, then gestures toward one of the dolphins. “That’s Tina,” he says. Steven ignores him, still mesmerized by the silvery form leaping in the blue-green lagoon. Dr. Dave, as he is known around Grassy Key, splashes the boy’s hand in the water. “Steven,” he asks, “you wanna go in with Tina?” He holds up two large cards, one depicting a cow, the other an apple. “Let me see you touch the cow, Steven.” Another splash. “Touch the cow.” Finally, one eye on the dolphin, Steven paws the correct flash card. “Now touch the apple,” Nathanson says. Haltingly, Steven complies.

“All right,” the doctor says with a laugh, cupping Steven’s chin and giving it a squeeze. But the real payoff is yet to come. Steven’s brother Jeff, 18, plunges into the water. He cradles Steven as Tina, cued by a trainer, proffers a dorsal fin. Jeff grabs hold and chaperones his enraptured brother on the ride of his life.

For children with such afflictions as brain damage, retardation, cerebral palsy and pervasive development disorders, the Dolphin/Child Therapy Program is frequently a last hope. Occasionally, Nathanson achieves dramatic results: Nonverbal children go home talking, and children with motor difficulties attain a measure of grace. For most patients, though, improvement is subtler—a single word more clearly enunciated, an attention span stretched by seconds. But even. those modest gains count as victories.

Nathanson’s therapy operates on two main principles: modifying behavior by offering rewards and reducing stress to enhance attention span. Nathanson first tried dolphin therapy on a hunch. “There was plenty of research showing the advantages of the buoyancy and soothing effects of hydrotherapy for head and spinal-cord injuries,” he says. “And there was plenty of research showing that animals can reduce stress. It just seemed that you could combine those elements and have success with handicapped children.” So he turned to dolphins, those famously savvy cousins of whales.

Nathanson, then a young psychology professor at Miami’s Florida International University (where he still teaches), began to test his hypothesis in 1978. His work over the next decade confirmed his theory. In 1988 he struck a deal with the Dolphin Research Center—a respected facility about 100 miles south of Miami—to use its dolphins two days a week. He has seen more than 300 patients since then and now has a yearlong waiting list. His two-week program, which costs $1,920, includes extensive evaluations and eight 20-minute therapy sessions.

Though Nathanson has earned acclaim from some medical people, others are skeptical of his work. One of the more prominent doubters, Aaron Kitchen, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, is an authority on animal-assisted therapy. Though he thinks Nathanson “is on the right track,” Kitchen maintains that extoling the dophins over other creatures “is unwarranted.” He cites “amazing results” using gerbils, hamsters and goats in his own work with children who suffer from severe attention-deficit disorder.

Nathanson plans to conduct a comparative study using other animals, including dogs, cats and birds, next year, but as of now he’s strictly a dolphin man. “They have a larger repertoire of behaviors than other animals,” he says. “And you get a novelty effect you don’t get with cats and dogs—all of which contributes to increasing attention.”

That dolphins are supremely gifted motivators is illustrated by Nina Loan, 5, of Penn Yan, N.Y., another of Nathanson’s patients. Nina also has Down syndrome, but unlike Steven she walks well and talks—a bit. Today she is tired and overwhelmed, but Nathanson cuts right in. Taking the girl in his arms, he walks her toward the water, where a dolphin named Merina waits. Out goes Nathanson’s foot, which the accommodating dolphin nuzzles—to Nina’s clapping, squealing delight. “See how gentle,” Nathanson says, closing the deal. “Now it’s your turn.”

In his final sessions with Steven, Nathanson tries to get the boy to begin to talk. ” ‘Cat,’ Steven. Say ‘c-c-c-at,’ ” Nathanson entreats. After several sessions, Steven seems a bit more attentive, but he still doesn’t respond to his ebullient instructor. Nathanson tries another flash-card image. “Do you want to go in with Merina, Steven?” he inquires. “Say ‘ring. R-r-r-r. R-r-r-r.’ ” He holds Steven’s hand to his throat and repeats the sound. At last, a victory: “Rrrr,” growls the child. This will be the only time during the program that Steven responds on cue, but it’s progress.

Steven, fully focused now, points out images of a ring, a cat and a frog on Nathanson’s flash cards. Steven’s mother, Vicki, punches the sky. “This is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened in relation to Steven,” she says. Back home in Kingston, Tenn., Vicki will continue the therapy by rewarding him with the use of a keyboard Steven has been playing with. “This program is meant to jump-start the child,” says Nathanson, “and show the parents how they can get a lasting effect.”

Propped up by Nathanson, Steven treads water one last time until a young dolphin named Aleta swims near. Then, grasping her dorsal fin and assisted once more by Jeff, Steven glides out into the lagoon, his expression, unforgettably, all smiles.


MEG GRANT on Grassy Key