Florida Keys

Dolphins help teen with cerebral palsy keep smiling

Teen with cerebral palsy swims with the Dolphins

A Boynton Beach, Florida, girl who has cerebral palsy swam with dolphins at a Key Largo marine mammal facility. The swim is part of the girl’s therapy for the condition.
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A Boynton Beach, Florida, girl who has cerebral palsy swam with dolphins at a Key Largo marine mammal facility. The swim is part of the girl’s therapy for the condition.

Ashtyn Montali, 15, has cerebral palsy and other medical issues, making it difficult for her to move her body the way she would like. But she usually has a smile on her face.

It’s one of the only ways her family knows she’s OK, because she’s unable to verbally express how she’s feeling.

“Without those smiles, I don’t know what we would do,” Ashtyn’s mom, Leslie Montali, said Wednesday at Island Dolphin care in Key Largo, where Ashtyn finished her third day of swimming with dolphins as part of her therapy. “That’s how we know everything’s OK. That’s her reassurance to us,” Leslie said.

By the end of her session Wednesday, Leslie and Ashtyn’s brothers, Jesse, 7, and Myles, 11, were reassured.

“That smile on her face. Her happiness is all I really need. ... It makes me happy. After so many years of struggling medically, physically, to be able to have an experience like this, to have her just come out of her shell a little bit, is amazing to me. So, today, for sure, it was written all over her face. She was definitely so happy,” Leslie said.

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Island Dolphin Care assisted-animal therapist Danielle Smalling holds Ashtyn Montali, 15, from Boynton Beach, at the Key Largo marine mammal facility on Wednesday, June 5, 2019. David Goodhue/dgoodhue@flkeysnews.com

Her mom could also tell from her daughter’s body language that Ashtyn was feeling more at ease on her last day with the dolphins than she did when she first arrived.

“Just as the session went on, even after a couple of minutes in, I could see her whole body relax,” Leslie said. “She picks up on what the dolphin has to offer, and I’m definitely sure the dolphin picked up on her today. Where I feel that on the first two days, she was really concentrating on what’s going on. I think she’s soaking it all in.”

The Montalis ended up at Island Dolphin Care with the help of Make-A-Wish Foundation South Florida, which has sponsored similar experiences at Florida marine mammal facilities in the past. Island Dolphin Care provides animal-assisted therapy for people with special needs, as well as those with post traumatic stress, including military veterans.

“A day like today is another wish granted. This is what we’re in the business of doing,” said Richard Kelly, chief operation officer at Make-A-Wish South Florida, said. “We know that it’s something that Ashtyn responds to and that will help her with her therapy.”

On Wednesday, Ashtyn swam with animal-assisted therapist Danielle Smalling and dolphin Sarah. Smalling, who has a background working with children and families with special needs, said a combination of water and the marine mammals helps children respond to therapy in unique ways.

“Something about the dolphins just brings it out of the children,” she said. “And, I think the combination of water too, these children they can do so many things in the water that they can’t do on land. It just opens them up to interact so much better than they would be able to with an animal on land.”

Smalling said Ashtyn seemed to react well to her interaction with Sarah.

“It’s so incredible. She did so amazing today. I’m so proud of her,” she said.

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Island Dolphin Care assisted-animal therapist Danielle Smalling holds Ashtyn Montali, 15, from Boynton Beach, at the Key Largo marine mammal facility on Wednesday, June 5, 2019, while Ashtyn grabs the dorsal fin of a bottlenose dolphin. David Goodhue/dgoodhue@flkeysnews.com

Monique Danko knelt on a floating dock with Ashtyn’s family and gave Sarah commands with a whistle and rewarded her with fish during the encounter. Danko comes to Key Largo from Orlando, where she worked with marine mammals at SeaWorld and was also a teacher’s aide at schools for children with disabilities.

She agreed with Smalling that the dolphin-assisted therapy seems effective at reaching children with severe disabilities, and it also helps their families.

“It’s absolutely amazing to be given the opportunity to just make the family kind of come out and forget about the things that they go through every single day, and to watch their children smile or do things they haven’t done before. It’s indescribable,” Danko said.

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Ashtyn Montali pets the belly of a bottlenose dolphin at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo on Wednesday, June 5, 2019. David Goodhue/flkeysnews.com

Ashtyn’s brothers try to include their sister in things they like to do, their mom said. But, between playing video games and skateboarding, a lot of times it seems, the boys are doing their thing and Ashtyn is doing hers. This week, Jesse and Myles came along and got to experience interacting with the dolphins along with their sister.

“They try to include her in board games and things like that, but this was something I definitely could see the three of them really enjoying together, and for her to have her younger brothers, who are sometimes like the older brothers, come into her kind of territory and experience her thing was amazing to me,” Leslie said.

Leslie said the three days of therapy helped her daughter physically and emotionally, and she hopes the memory of her time in Key Largo will yield similar benefits going forward.

“She wants to remember it. So, when we go home, I’m definitely going to constantly just talk to her. Remind her of what she did,” Leslie said. “Mention all the dolphins, so that she can take that memory and keep it, and hold on to it.”

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