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Back To On Campus Home September 2007 Volume 33, Issue 11 Home


Social Work student learns about unconditional acceptance by leaps and bounds

School of Social Work graduate student Aeron Aanstoos with her friend - the 500 pound and contagiously cheeful School of Social Work graduate student Aeron Aanstoos with her friend - the 500 pound and contagiously cheerful "Squirt."
Photo: Aeron Aanstoos

Aeron Aanstoos wishes her new friend — the 500-pound and contagiously cheerful “Squirt” — could write a social work textbook.

She spent the summer watching and learning how the therapy dolphin works with special needs children to improve motor skills, motivation and self-esteem while reducing loneliness and anxiety.

“Dolphins are extremely intelligent, gentle and sensitive and it doesn’t take long to see that with some kids, there is a special connection to the animals,” said Aanstoos, a graduate student in the School of Social Work. “Dolphins are fantastic motivators, both because of their personalities and their novelty.”

Aanstoos graduates in August with a master’s degree and recently finished an internship at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, Fla. The program is designed to assist children and adolescents with critical or terminal illnesses and emotional and physical challenges.

“I’m a big fan of the idea that whenever possible, therapy should be fun, playful and creative, especially when working with kids,” she said. “Children with special needs or illnesses don’t always have a lot of opportunities to just be kids, so I think many of them respond well to art and animals, which are just inherently fun.”

Among others, Aanstoos worked with Melissa, a young girl who has a chronic illness that affects her speech and appearance and causes developmental delay.

“She was very excited and a little nervous to swim with Squirt,” said Aanstoos. “Squirt absolutely adored her.”

Because of this, and because Melissa was so good at following directions, she got to do a lot of special activities with Squirt that not everyone else gets to do, said Aanstoos.

“I think this was a big boost for Melissa,” she said. “I’d like to think that she could go back to school and feel like she’s different and special because she hugged a dolphin, instead of because she has an illness.”

There have been studies, said Aanstoos, showing that just being around dolphins can affect mood and alleviate depression.

“But I don’t think you need a lot of research to tell you that,” she said. “Even kids who could not get in the water for medical reasons lit up when they were with the dolphins.”

On several occasions, Squirt decided to “take over” the therapy session, said Aanstoos. “She has a special affinity for small, frail children and at times it seemed that she knew how best to help them.”

Besides learning about the healing power of dolphins, Aanstoos said she was able to broaden her idea of what a social worker is and does.

“I could relax, be less self-conscious and take in the experience — one that I was so lucky to be able to share with the children, their families and the dolphins,” she said. “It was amazing to see the changes in children and their families even after a short time at Island Dolphin Care. This sense of joy and fun is something I hope to bring to my future practice.”