Using the Senses: Developing the Senses in a Multiply Disabled Child

Our senses are our gateway to the world. They are how we obtain information, gain understanding, and interact with the objects and people around us. Suppose your child has blindness or low vision and additional disabilities. In that case, your child will need to use all of their functional (remaining) senses—vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste—to get the most information possible about the world and what is happening in the environment. Learning to use information from their senses together and effectively will help them integrate input gathered from different parts of their body to enable them to understand what is happening at any given moment.


The majority of children who are low vision have some usable vision. Vision is the sense through which children potentially learn the most about their world. It is used for gathering information nearby (what can be touched) and at a distance (beyond arm’s reach). For young children whose vision is typically developing, 80 to 90 percent of what they learn about the world comes to them through vision. Therefore, if your child’s low vision or is absent, in all likelihood, learning is going to be affected in some way. For this reason, it is important for children with low vision to learn to make effective use of all their senses.

The eyes are involved in using vision but so is the brain. The eyes gather information, but the brain has the job of interpreting and making sense out of that information. Some children’s eyes may be fine, but they may have sustained damage to the brain or to the pathway from the back of the eye to the brain. Thus, even though their eyes are functioning well, these children may not be able to process or fully understand the information they are gathering. If your child has such a condition, usually known as cortical or cerebral visual impairment, and the teacher of students with visual impairments may be able to work to improve the processing of what your child’s eyes see.

The presence of a physical disability also may interfere with your child’s use of vision. When a child has to work to maintain control of her head and upper body to keep the head or body from falling forward or to the side, it may be difficult for your child to use their vision efficiently. Suppose your child has a physical disability that affects head control or upper body control. In that case, you may find it helpful to talk with a physical or occupational therapist or other members of the educational team about strategies that can be used to support your child’s head and upper body. You may find that once your child is in a stable position, they will be able to use their vision more effectively.

For some children, the more experiences they have that allow them to build an understanding of their environment, the more they learn to gather information through their vision. For example, your child may not know what a blender is and, therefore may not appear to see it when it is sitting on the kitchen counter. But if you involve your child in using the blender to make a milkshake by having them pour the ingredients into the container with you and then pressing the buttons to operate it, they will start to know what the blender is and what it is used for. Once your child has developed some familiarity with it, you may find that they suddenly sees it on the counter when they are in the kitchen.


In a typically developing child, hearing and vision work in tandem. When vision is decreased or absent, hearing does not replace vision. Hearing continues to provide important information, but vision isn’t available to confirm much of what is heard.

As with blindness or low vision, a child whose hearing is impaired needs to have many different kinds of experiences in order to give meaning to what they hear. For example, if your child notices a sound from an object that can be touched, show the object and help them explore it so that they understand it more fully. When touching what your child hears isn’t possible, describe what they are hearing so that they understand the meaning of the sound.

Children also use their hearing as they listen to others talking. Through hearing language, they usually begin to understand and learn to use language. Therefore, it’s important for you and others to talk to your child. Try to remember not to overwhelm your child with too many words. If you can, select the vocabulary you use based on your child’s current level of understanding of language and be consistent.


Touch is an extremely important sense for a child who has blindness or low vision. Many children with blindness or low vision and additional disabilities use touch as one of their primary means for gathering information. Therefore, it’s a good idea to encourage your child to touch objects to explore the world, beginning in infancy. You can use the hand-under-hand technique to help your child reach out to touch things in the environment. Also, point out the different characteristics of what they are touching. If your child has limitations in using one or both of their hands, you might want to talk with members of the educational team about strategies for getting both hands to work together to explore and gather information through touch.

Some children resist touching; you may hear this referred to as “tactile defensiveness.” It can be challenging to cope with a child’s avoidance of touching because, on the one hand, it’s important for children to explore and gather information, but on the other hand, it’s also important to respect their feelings and wishes. If your child tends to resist using the sense of touch, look for ways to help them feel safe when touching something.

If your child is potentially using tactile symbols or braille in communicating, touch and tactile skills will be essential for her. Try to share raised symbols or braille with your child regularly. To encourage the development of skills, use tactile symbols or braille in activities at home or in school and in daily life.

Touch is also critical in techniques that people who are blind or low vision use for travel. For example, if your child uses a cane or other mobility device, they will learn to identify surfaces and obstacles they touch with their cane, or may use a travel technique called trailing, in which they lightly touch the wall using the back of their hand as they walk in order to get tactile information about the route.

Smell and Taste

Smell and taste are not often thought of as significant senses for gathering information about the environment, but they are important for a child with a visual impairment and additional disabilities. Like vision, hearing, and touch, they can aid your child in gathering information about the world. For example, your child may use her sense of smell when she is traveling to seek out clues in the environment to help her be more independent. She may know that to get to her favorite clothing store at the mall, she needs to walk straight from the entrance until she comes to the cinnamon bun store, which she can identify by smell, and then turn right.

Your child can also use both smell and taste to identify foods. You may find that your child is resistant to tasting new foods or to having foods that have a certain kind of texture to them. If you notice your child hesitating to taste foods, you might want to consult with other members of the educational team, especially an occupational therapist or speech therapist, to get some ideas for increasing their interest and willingness to taste new foods.

Sometimes children use their sense of smell to investigate their food before eating it by bending over their plate in a way that may be socially inappropriate. If this is something your child insists on, look for a more acceptable alternative.

Using the Senses Together

People generally use more than one sense at a time. When your child eats a snack, they may look at the food, smell it, taste it, and use their hands to manipulate a spoon and bring the food to their mouth. They may hear sizzling noises if you are heating a snack or listen to you describe the food or encourage the use of a spoon appropriately. Children with blindness or low vision and additional disabilities are often more apt to learn if we take a multisensory approach to providing them with experiences. Try to involve as many of your child’s senses in an activity as possible so that they can absorb information in a variety of ways.

Consider how you can incorporate more than one sense into your child’s activities, such as learning to find articles of clothing she wants to wear.


  • Divide items in drawer by colors.
  • Place dividers in the drawer that provide good contrast with the items inside.
  • Put a visual label on the drawer, such as a picture or words, to indicate what is inside.


  • Use bins or dividers of different sizes or textures to separate items.
  • Show your child how to tactilely scan the contents of the drawer, working systematically from left to right.
  • Place a tactile label, such as a symbol or braille, to indicate what is inside.


  • Place an auditory marker on the drawer, such as a bell tied to the handle, to help your child in identifying the drawer.
  • Use consistent language when explaining to your child how to locate items in the drawer.
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