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Developing as a Blind Infant

Most parents beam with pride as their young child takes her first steps, speaks his first words or shows excitement when exposed to a new toy. However, some parents are presented with more developmental challenges for their infant to overcome. Any number of factors will affect the way a child develops, but children with sensory disabilities need to find alternative ways of exploring their environment and engaging in simple tasks. These differences in how a child approaches the task of developing cognitive, language, social, gross motor, fine motor and other skills do not need to be cause for alarm, but understanding how the child might accomplish these important tasks helps parents and other caregivers support the child as she or he grows and develops. I experienced the challenges and gifts of developing important skills without vision. By using an evaluation, The Oregon Project, which was performed periodically for me during these critical years as well as observations from my parents and professionals who worked with me, I hope to provide insight on some of these challenges and gifts.
Some skills did not require adaptation. Many language skills, such as associating words with real life objects or experiences, imitating sounds or becoming alert when I heard my own name were all tasks I could accomplish without vision. Becoming alert to tactile stimulation, sucking liquid from a bottle and nursing required no adaptation as well. Many of these activities are reflexes, so it makes sense that I was able to accomplish them.
Other skills did require adaptation. Developing the concept of object permanence required that I reach for a toy when I could no longer feel it. Searching for or tracking objects was done by sound. Any tracing skill was accomplished with raised lines instead of flat pictures. While young children often understand concepts foreign to them through pictures in books, I needed to feel the object. For example, I needed to touch our pet dog, Buddy, to understand the concept of "dog". I used tactile and auditory cues to remain oriented indoors and outdoors. Our dog barking indicated the location of his house and near that, the slide. Wind chimes showed me the location of the swing set. The sidewalk felt different from the grass in our yard. Much like the infants who learned to fear heights from experience and observation of those around them, I soon learned the location of dangerous objects, like stairs, by tactile cues, such as tile, preceding them with the help of experience and observation of the distress of family members around me.
Still other skills required encouragement. My mother vividly recalls the day I learned to walk. I had been reluctant to even stand without support from some sort of stationary object, so that was one goal my family and other professionals set for me to accomplish. The same day that goal was set, a few hours later, I got up from the floor in front of my mother and walked across the room. Even now, I still prefer to be within reach of a stationary object if I will be standing for long periods. A sighted child can use vision to establish points of reference. I needed to find ways of walking without those points of reference.
I developed good language skills rather quickly. I could use words to make a request or identify objects. Most children, by the age of two years can make requests with one word such as "drink" or "water". I preferred to mimic the sentence structure I heard around me and ask for a "drink of water". Learning my language skills required some adaptations such as touching the object in question. Later in life learning to read was more difficult because my parents were not completely comfortable using the Braille code to teach me.
After noting the areas in which I struggled or excelled, it is plausible to expect that a blind or visually impaired child will differ in some developmental areas or skills learned. However, this process is normal and parents can encourage developmental milestones by adapting activities which would normally require vision. The normal experiences an infant has are still critical for a visually impaired child, but the child still emerges from the early years well rounded and able to excel in many areas.


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