How to Adapt Your Language When Your Child Has No Visual Information: Communication and Blindness

baby petting orange cat

By Carla A. Brooks

Introduction

Babies use all of their senses to experience, explore, and engage with their world in order to develop new skills—like cognition, motor, social, self-help, and communication skills. When one or more of a child's senses is impaired, developmental delays or differences tend to be expected.

Your child's sense of hearing might be considered the most important for the development of spoken language. However, deaf and hearing impaired children learn to communicate using different methods of "input" and "output." And, if you have a deaf-blind child, there are specific methods of teaching communication using touch, the tactile sense.

When a child is blind from birth or is diagnosed with visual impairment within the first two years of life, their communication skills should be closely monitored along with other developmental skills. Research from the 50s, 60s, and 70s indicated that parents of blind children could expect to see delays in communication development. But in contrast to this historical perspective, recent research suggests that the absence of sight does not automatically mean your child will have language and speech delays. Being diagnosed with multiple disabilities will most likely change this outcome, but it will depend upon whether your child's disabilities are cognitive, motor, social, or a combination.

It cannot be denied that vision plays an important role in the development of communication skills in sighted children. To make up for your child's lack of vision, you may have already found new ways to help your blind child experience, explore, and engage in his world. Your child's sense of touch can provide significant information, and hearing can often add to that. The language that children hear is significant to the development of most skills, but especially, their communication and related social skills.

Successful communicative interactions depend a great deal on what we see around us. In the absence of vision, blind children learn to recognize what is in their world through touch and sound and the language input offered by others. The language that you use to support your blind child's understanding and to help build and support communication skills is more than labeling what you see. Labels build vocabulary, but describing or even translating the visual world into words is more complex.

The Role of Vision in Understanding, Building, and Sharing Meaning

If you are sighted, you can look around the space where you are sitting while you are reading this article. You might be in your living room, at your desk at work, in a diner or on train. Take a minute and look around. You will find that everything that exists in that setting has meaning. Without knowing exactly where you are, some assumptions can still be made.

  • There are immovable objects like walls, windows, doors, and floors.
  • There are movable objects like personal items, functional items, and leisure time items.
  • Some of the items are "related" in some way through their position or location, how they are used, or how they fit together.
  • There may be people who are familiar or those who are unfamiliar.
  • Those people might be just sitting or doing something with the objects you see.

You probably recognize all of these things. You know the names of the items and can describe the actions that might be performed on or with them. You can express opinions about what you like or don't like about them. You can think about other similar objects you've experienced in your life. You can talk about them.

In your current setting, you can "take in" all this information by yourself because all you have to do is look around and think about what you are seeing and how they all relate to you and each other. You can make choices about what or who you pay attention to. You can access things you need or find someone to help you.

The meaning we experience in different settings in which we find ourselves comes from everything around us or the context. The visual context provides a great deal of the meaning in our lives, and when people are included in that setting, it also becomes a social context. As we communicate, we pay attention to each other and share information by looking at objects and other people and what they are doing. We use a skill called joint attention when we are doing this.

To do more than label things and people in the natural setting when you are talking to your blind child, you might consider WH-questions or WH-concepts—questions or ideas that start with "What, Who, Where."

Rather than ask your child these questions directly, think about how you might describe these concepts. Here are some categories of meaning developed by toddlers and ultimately combined into two-word and three-word combinations that are related to the "WH-concepts." These are called "semantic" or meaning categories.

  • I see things that answer the question "What?" - objects
    • Ball, cookie, chair, door
  • I see people and animals that answer the question "Who?" – agents
    • Your child's name, Mommy, Daddy, boy, doggy
  • I see movements of people or objects that answer the question "What doing?" – actions
    • Get, throw, eat, put, touch
  • I see places that answer the question "Where?" – locations
    • Outside, (in) basket, (in) car, (on) chair, (in) tub
  • I see colors, shapes, sizes, amounts that change the meaning of objects that might answer questions like "How does it look," or "What does it look like," or "How many?" – modifiers
    • Round, big, many, two, noisy, rough

These categories of meaning are also used during toddler development to describe relationships between objects, agents, actions, locations, and modifiers. Here are some examples of what are called semantic relationships:

  • I see a person or an animal doing something: agent + action
    • Baby cry, mommy eat, daddy push, doggy jump
  • I see someone doing something to or with an object: action + object or agent + action + object
    • Throw ball, eat cracker, touch pillow, get "blankie," baby throw ball, Sissy close door, (Name) push button
  • I see something interesting that is different than another thing: modifier + object
    • Noisy toy, wet towel, big ball, round ball, two cookies
  • I see where something is "sitting": object + location or agent + location
    • Kitty (on) chair, shoes (on) floor, Mommy (at) work, brother outside

Another way to think about how you can use or adapt your language is that not only are you labeling, but you are also describing and relating what is present and happening in your child's natural settings. You may also be calling attention, filling in missing information, or interpreting and helping your child make inferences about things we can't see like emotions.

So, for example, instead of just reinforcing the word "kitty" when the family cat is in the room, you might tell your child, "The kitty is purring. She is leaning against your hand. That sound means she's happy you're petting her!"

Summary: Adapt Your Language to Help Your Visually Impaired Child Fill in the "Missing Pieces"

Our world is filled with visual information that supports our communication skills. In the absence of vision, your child will learn about natural contexts based on what they hear and what they touch. You can add information by using your language to fill in the missing pieces.

Your words will describe objects, people, actions, and how they might relate with each other and with your child. Adapting your language input is one of the ways you can help your child develop intentional and enjoyable social communicative interactions during their first two years of life.

There are more ideas about supporting your blind child's nonverbal communication in the article "Communication Skills for Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired" if you are interested. When communication is difficult behavior issues may appear, and there is a series of articles available on this topic.

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