Dolphin therapy programs are targeting people with everything from cerebral palsy to Down syndrome, autism and even knee injuries, but whether or not the expensive therapy is effective remains up for debate.

Programs abound in Florida, Hawaii and far off locales like Australia and Ukraine, often costing thousands of dollars per week. The programs vary, but most offer short periods of time with dolphins to swim, pet and kiss the animals or watch them do tricks.

Dolphin-assisted therapy rests on the idea that even brief interactions with the remarkably captivating sea animals can have therapeutic affects that linger, making people more responsive to traditional therapies later on.

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With growth in diagnoses of developmental disabilities there appears to be a bumper crop of parents willing to try dolphin-assisted therapy. But the practice is being widely criticized, even by the researcher who first started offering the therapy in the 1970s.

Critics say the therapy is unproven and can be harmful to both dolphins and people. Some people have experienced bites and broken ribs from swimming with the large animals and experts say forcing a confined dolphin to constantly interact with new people causes stress to the animals.

Nonetheless, for parents seeing is believing. Parents report increased socialization and vocabulary growth during visits with dolphins that they haven’t seen otherwise. “This is the only place where she gets what she needs,” one mom told The Washington Post about her daughter who has autism. To read more click here.