Q & A: Janet Flowers

More Than WordsSpeech pathologist Janet Flowers has some unconventional helpers when working with special-needs children
By Lilly Rockwell

Janet Flowers is a speech-language therapist with some unusual assistants — namely dolphins, sea lions, ducks, exotic birds and dogs. Flowers works with the animals to help children with autism and Down syndrome learn to speak and communicate.

This type of animal-assisted therapy works on the assumption that children learn better if they are emotionally stimulated. Being around animals helps them remember communication skills they wouldn’t be able to in a day-to-day setting.

Flowers usually works with children ages 3 to 13. She leases time with dolphins at Panama City Beach’s Gulf World Marine Park and even auditions dolphins beforehand to make sure she picks ones that work well with children with disabilities. Flowers spoke recently with Emerald Coast Magazine writer Lilly Rockwell about how animal-assisted therapy works wonders on children with special needs.

How long have you worked with children with disabilities?
I did speech-language therapy in Okaloosa County for 13 years. And I’ve had the institute since 2000. I decided to get my doctorate in applied research at Florida State University.

My entire dissertation was on dolphin-assisted therapy. What I was seeing were very emotionally aroused children who were more than willing to work on task, and I could get better communication with them than I did in a regular therapy setting.

Why do you think animal-assisted therapy works so well?
In the past, we haven’t associated learning with emotions. Dr. Larry Cahill at the University of California-Irvine has, just in the past five or six years, discovered that those two can work together. My contention is that by combining an emotionally arousing experience, I am providing licensed therapy that is important.

How does the therapy work?
The team and I work with parents to develop a plan before meeting with the child. We pair the children with either a dolphin, exotic bird, sea lion or dog, depending on the child’s personality and needs. Half of the children we see are completely nonverbal. It’s our job to give them some form of communication, whether through signs, gestures, pictures or words.

We provide emotionally stimulating interactions for the child at the same time we are teaching them communication skills, which fosters a desire for more interaction with the animal and increases time on task, as well as expresses communication skills. Then the child must complete communication tasks to continue interacting with the animal. So the kids quickly learn that they must first work, then they can play.

How do you know it’s really working?
I had a 4-year-old who was completely nonverbal. He had a heart defect as well, and had spent 75 to 80 percent of his life in the hospital. He was getting ready to have heart surgery, and the doctor needed to be able to detect when he was in pain. I took him to see the baby ducks that were born in the park that day. Ross said his first word — “duck.” By the end of the first week, we had very consistent “yes” and “no” responses.

Where do your clients come from?
I’ve had them come from all over the South, Africa, England, Ireland, Seattle, Australia. I think they find me on the Internet. Sixty percent of my clientele is international.

What happens after the family leaves?
That’s very hard. Usually I will pretty much live with the family for two weeks. It’s not an hour of therapy ever day. I eat lunch and dinner with them and go to the mall.

It’s a lot of parent training, too. I require them to be on site and videotape everything their child does with me so they can take it home for their homework. In the end, the child is rewarded by getting to see the videotape of them with the animal. We also send them home with a communication plan of care for their therapists and teachers in their hometown.