What’s Different About the Way Children with Blindness or Low Vision Learn?

Parents whose child has blindness or low vision may wonder what effect impaired vision will have on their child. There is no single answer that applies to all children. Your child’s specific visual condition, the presence of any other disabilities, their personality and temperament, plus many other factors, will all influence how your child reacts to their visual impairment.

Children who are blind or low vision are as unique and as varied as any other group of children. One overall statement, however, does apply to most children who are blind or low vision: a blind or low vision child will typically learn about the world in a different way from a child without blindness or low vision

Depending on individual circumstance:

  • May not be able to rely on sight to obtain information, and may, therefore, need to use senses other than vision to acquire information.
  • Need particular kinds of attention and extra experiences from infancy on to learn skills that sighted children develop as a matter of course by watching people and objects around them and imitating what they see.
  • Typically need to have clear explanations, sometimes repeatedly.
  • Direct experiences set up to learn what sighted children learn by looking. For example:
    • Your child may need to be able to pet the neighbor’s dog from head to tail and to spend time touching the dog’s entire body in order to understand the animal referred to in a story as “a dog” and to determine what a dog really is. In fact, they may need to touch a number of different dogs over time to really understand what a dog is and to learn that there are several kinds of dogs.
    • May need to help stir the batter for a batch of cookies, help put them in the oven, and be told that the good smell coming from the kitchen is the cookies baking—and then taste the cookies—in order to make the connections between the process of baking and the food she eats.

Because limited vision can have a strong impact on your child’s ability to understand concepts, learn language, move about freely with confidence, and develop and grow in a variety of ways, you and your child’s teachers will need to use alternate methods and strategies for teaching your child basic concepts and the meanings of words now and how to read, write, interact socially, and perform various daily activities. Teachers of students with visual impairments are experts in using these methods.

What You Can Do

In addition to seeing if your child is eligible for early intervention services and working with a teacher of students with visual impairments, you can help your child grow and develop by remembering that she can learn almost anything that anyone else learns—but she may have to learn it in a different way. Try to keep the following principles in mind.

Give your child explanations and descriptions and ask questions!

Don’t assume that your child has learned something just because they have been exposed to it. Your child may need to be specifically taught what a sighted child learns by observing what goes on around her.

Remember that your child may only be obtaining small pieces of information.

Sighted children learn by looking at the whole picture before exploring the parts. Many visually impaired children experience the world the other way around. Your child may have to rely on what they can touch, feel, or hear, and in doing so, they may be getting unconnected pieces of information. You can help put these pieces together to form a full concept by providing extra explanations and a chance to feel things and explore. For example, your child might need to be shown a banana, help you peel it, feel the banana without its skin, have a bite of it, and then help you mash it in a bowl to understand the qualities of bananas and that bananas can be eaten in different ways.

Help your child put it all together.

When you go shopping at the mall, you may see a bakery, but your child may instead smell it. You might see the video arcade, but your child might hear it. If you explain and help make sense of all the simultaneous information they may be receiving, you can help increase the understanding of the world.

Provide direct experiences.

Children who are blind or low vision need to have direct experiences in order to learn what sighted children learn by looking. For example, your child might not know that blocks can be stacked on top of each other until you or her older brother show her how to stack them by using hand-under-hand.

Give time.

It may take longer for your child to do everyday tasks than other children who are sighted. Allow the time needed to explore and to complete things on their own.

Build on other experiences.

If possible, remind your child about a previous experience when telling about something new. This can help make new information clearer and can help reinforce it in their mind. For example, “This dog’s coat is straight and smooth—it’s a Labrador retriever. Remember the dog with curly fur we met yesterday? He was a poodle.”

Don’t fall into the habit of “doing.”

Because your child has to process so much information, it may be tempting to do things for them because it’s quicker. It’s also tempting to let you do things for your child. But it’s not really helpful to in the long run. Let your child do things, and in that way, they’ll learn to do them—and will also feel good about themself.

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