In June 2009, I received one of the most unusual requests in my career as a sensory integration-based occupational therapist. The St. Louis Zoo had a chimpanzee named Holly, who was exhibiting behaviors different from other chimps: among other things she was neither grooming other chimps nor allowing herself to be groomed in a typical way. She plucked her hair excessively. She displayed body rocking movements and was seemingly fearless in situations where other chimps were more cautious. They hypothesized that Holly may have a chimp form of autism
Our colleague Dr. Margaret Bauman checked out Holly, and after careful review of the evidence she suggested instead that Holly had a form of sensory processing disorder (SPD). The Spiral Foundation was contacted, and I joined a team of experts bridging human and animal health disciplines to look into Holly’s condition.
I jumped at the chance to help, and started adapting some of our pediatric sensory integration checklists for use with chimps. Once the zoo staff administered the checklists to all of their chimps as a baseline, we administered additional tests to ensure that Holly’s differences were not simply personality traits.
With the combined data, I created a phased intervention program to address Holly’s particular needs. Phase one emphasized tactile and proprioceptive inputs to help her build body awareness and motor planning skills. The second phase was intended to strengthen her vestibular system and address deficiencies in her higher-level motor skills, with additional heavy work to solidify her proprioceptive gains from phase one. Happily, we found that after the treatments she demonstrated significant reduction of atypical and stereotypic behaviors, while increasing time spent in positive occupations such as resting and interacting with others.
From a researcher’s perspective, this unusual request holds interesting opportunities. In the short-term we have the opportunity to improve the life of an animal that was clearly out of sync with her environment. Longer term our work may help develop a chimp model of SPD, which could have far-reaching benefits for the welfare of chimps and other animals in captivity. Lastly, establishing a strong model and treatment for SPD in chimps and other non-human primates can help inform and advance diagnosis and treatment models in humans.
I have had a wonderful experience working with the St. Louis Zoo staff, the team working on Holly’s condition, and Holly herself. While I may never again get such an unusual request, this experience has opened my eyes to the universality of sensory experiences, regardless of age, gender, race, and now, species.
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