Eye-Pressing in Children Who Are Blind or Low Vision

Does your child who is blind or low vision engage in prolonged eye-pressing? Perhaps you’ve noticed your child aggressively rubbing or poking their eyes with their fingers, knuckles, or fists, and you are concerned or even disturbed. You may wonder why it’s occurring, whether it’s acceptable, and how to address it.

If this describes you, please know you are not alone!

Let’s take a look at

  • why this behavior can be common in individuals who are blind or visually impaired
  • the physical repercussions of eye pressing
  • how to address the issue, and
  • a valuable needs-assessment survey on the topic.

Why Eye–Pressing?

It’s believed eye-pressing in children who are blind or low vision is partly due to the brain receiving inadequate visual input. Interestingly, as noted in Developmental Medicine and Children’s Neurology’s article: Eye Pressing by Visually Impaired Children, blind children with non-functioning optic nerves (the pathways for messages between the eyes and brain) do not engage in habitual eye pressing. This seems to suggest that the purpose of eye pressing is, at least in part, to stimulate the brain.

Some even describe eye-pressing as reflexive. Prolonged or aggressive eye-rubbing and/or pressing may be the body’s almost automatic response to satiate the ocular cortex’s need for stimulation, much like scratching is an almost automatic response to an itch. This isn’t to say one cannot control eye-pressing. If you had chicken pox as a child, you likely remember a strong desire to scratch, though you were probably told to refrain to prevent scarring.

Eye pressing can also be therapeutic. It makes sense, doesn’t it—if one receives little to no visual information and pressing on the eyes produces interesting visual feedback, the behavior may leave one feeling satisfied, alert, or even soothed.

Due to the possible reflexive and behavioral influences on eye-pressing, it’s easy to see why it can become habitual, like biting nails or twisting hair. And like biting nails or twisting hair, the behavior can increase in frequency and/or intensity when tired, stressed, nervous, or bored.

So, is it really so bad?

Physical Repercussions

In addition to possible social effects, habitual eye-pressing and/or poking can harm the eyes.

It’s difficult to assess the extent of injury to the structure of the eyes, but it has been proven to cause

  • retinal detachment
  • scratching and thinning of the cornea
  • infections
  • receding of the eye socket, and
  • further impaired vision.

So, how should you help your child curb this habit?

Addressing the Issue

Devise a plan for refocusing their attention when they are eye-pressing. The alternate behavior should be socially appropriate and not cause harm; it may entail exploring a toy, squeezing a stress ball, or playing with a fidget cube.

When your child is eye-pressing, gently help them recognize it and encourage the alternate behavior. “Gently” is critical. Individuals should not be shamed; feeling shame will likely harm your child’s self-image and cause them to continue the behavior in private simply.

Given patience and persistence with redirection, many individuals with blindness or low vision have succeeded in reducing or abstaining from eye pressing, which, as you can imagine, is especially difficult because it can be engaged in unknowingly.

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