Cognition, language and social development

Since the 1930’s we have known that neonates have visual reflexes as early as two days after birth. (Pratt 1934).  Foetuses respond to sound in the womb and there is evidence that low frequencies calm and high frequencies tend to distress and that neonates can detect the location of sound (Razran 1961).  Neonates respond to odour (Engen, Lipsett and Kaye 1963) but none of this should be a surprise since sound and smell are known to be so important to recognition and bonding in a wide range of species.

A child enters the world as a highly sensitive and responsive organism.  All children develop motor coordination unless physically impaired in some way. Stroke a newborn’s cheek and a mouth opens in anticipation of food.  They reach for their feet and search for food eventually co-ordinating hand and mouth and, for sighted children, are able to  support this process with improved depth perception and an awareness of spatial relationships that is not restricted to kinaesthetic awareness.  The process of developing an understanding of the wider world through infancy is constantly reinforced in sighted children by an awareness of distance, of objects beyond reach and the relationship between objects.  A blind child can appreciate the space and relationship of objects within reach but has greater difficulty in extending beyond the immediate environment that lies within reach.

With the ability to crawl and walk a blind child is able to construct a sense of the environment that approaches more closely the understanding of a sighted child and hearing helps to recognise some objects at a distance that a sighted child would recognise by looking.  The gap between blind and sighted children in terms of cognitive development begins to widen at this stage and to counter this widening parents need to intervene to ensure that the blind child has an enriched experience of the environment.  A sighted child can achieve much of their learning passively just by observing, whereas a blind child has to engage actively with the environment.

The difference becomes clearer with the acquisition of language although the acquisition of vocabulary without understanding can obscure the difference.  Sighted children can learn spatial references such “under”, “next to” or “over there” simply by observation.  A blind child has to experience relationships such as under or next to by direct physical experience.  Concrete experience is essential for all children to develop cognitively but it is central to learning by blind children.  It is, of course, possible for all children to learn vocabulary by listening to adults and they can even  learn when such vocabulary is appropriate.  This may suggest a more advanced level of cognitive development than has really been achieved by a child.  For example,  a three year old child may hear a parent make an implicit conditional statement: “we might go to the park” and repeat it.  The child, however, is unlikely to understand the implied “if circumstance permit” and will simply be making a statement of what they expect or wish to do.  The way children mimic the speech of parents can suggest a more advanced understanding of language that hides problems with the child’s ability to understand the relationship between language and concrete reality.

For well over a century there has been academic debate over the relationship between language and concepts, Benjamin Whorf making the point in the 19th century that concepts are created, or at least made knowable by language.  Language enables individuals to communicate about objects or features of the world without actually having the objects or features in front of them.  Russian psychologists, Vygotsky and then Luria, explicitly stressed the importance of practical experience accompanied by language as a first stage in conceptual development and of the importance of relating language to activity.  Children will normally accompany play with a constant flow of language which reinforces the link between language and concrete reality but also enables the child to control objects through play and use language to project about what their dolls are going to do.  It is important to recognise that play puts children in control and this is accompanied by the language of what dolls should or must do.

The process of development is a complex process of interrelated physical, emotional and cognitive development. The link between the physical and cognitive development of a blind child is also very dependent on the child’s emotional development, on the development of self confidence and willingness to engage actively with the world. This is an area where the role of parents in encouraging physical confidence is important.  A fully sighted child is likely to be adventurous with little regard for danger, often wanting to do things that are dangerous and reacting angrily when, for example, prevented from climbing high ladders or playing with an electric drill.  Tantrums are normal for two year olds who are prevented from having what they want;  lying down screaming in a supermarket is a normal response to not being allowed to have a bar of chocolate.  Over a period of some years this display of temper usually modifies to a general reaction to the gap between what a child wants to do and what is possible or permissible in the circumstances; it expresses frustration at not being in control.  Children vary, but from about five to seven or eight years old the child becomes more biddable and able to recognise the existence of restrictions and, more subtly, to identify the nature of conditionality and scope for negotiation.  This process of learning assertiveness within a framework of demands by others is an important underpinning of cognitive development.  As a general proposition, children who are confident and assertive are likely to be better learners than children who lack confidence.  This is not to argue that confidence alone leads to more successful cognitive development but that learning depends on the confidence to investigate and experiment.  As children grow into adults they need to feel in control of their own circumstances; they need to develop an internal locus of control.(Rotter 1966)

This makes it absolutely important that parents of blind children encourage engagement with the wider world; visiting shops, friends, going to the park, the seaside or visiting zoos, especially the kind of local children’s zoo  that encourages handling small animals.  They need to encourage independence as far as possible encouraging the child to explore freely where it is safe to do so.  In particular they need to accompany all these activities with language because it is language which transcends the immediate concrete reality.  The hard thing a child bumps into has a wider significance when the child learns the word “table”.  The specific instance becomes a generalised concept and this process develops over time to give the child terms for identifying types of objects (table, chair, cup etc): terms for describing aspects of objects which may apply to more than one type of object (wooden, metal, furry): terms for describing the relative qualities of objects (hard/soft, big/little) and terms for describing the relationship between objects (Under, between, on top if).  By this use of language the child is able to place individual experiences in an ordered and predictable world.  A blind child needs to be given as much direct experience of the world as possible enable the development of this structured understanding.  A  child who has walked long distances will understand the concept of distance more successfully than a child who is confined within the home or transported everywhere by pushchair or in a car.  A sighted child can perceive distance directly but a blind child needs to experience it.  Broad experience can avoid one problem frequently experienced by blind children; the problem of learned helplessness.  Over protection can cause a child to avoid taking risks and being adventurous and developing the confidence  to be independent.  It can also lead to a child expecting their needs to be met by other people rather than accepting responsibility for meeting those needs.

The acquisition of language with rich experiential associations gives access to a more vivid imaginative world. The word “forest” will have rich associations of texture, smell, sounds, the confusion of tree roots and sudden changes in terrain for a child who has walked through a forest.  “The sea” will be associated with the sound of breakers and gulls, the smell of seaweed and the cold and powerful drag of waves for a child who has been in the sea.  For each child the significance of words will depend on their individual experiences.  A story told to a five year old child will be understood to the extent that the story refers to matters within the child’s experience or to fantasies that build on concepts already developed by the child. Language embodies concepts that children can combine even though they don’t occur together in reality; fairies can fly, trolls live under bridges and animals can talk.

A child’s understanding of stories and ability to enter into a rich imaginary world depends very much on their ability to draw on real experiences and relate them to the stories. This is important in establishing a child’s motivation to read independently.  Reading, in Western cultures is a second order symbolic system.  The letters represent sounds which, when joined together, represent words that in turn identify aspects of the real world.  For a sighted child, the introduction to the conventions of reading can be achieved incidentally by seeing the letters of their own name, especially initial letters, and by seeing words in the environment.  They can see the words on the page when a story is read to them, see the context provided by illustrations and begin to grasp the idea of left to right direction by watching their parent’s finger follow the words.

A blind child has fewer opportunities for this kind of incidental learning but parents can compensate for this in a number of ways.  Objects around the home can be labelled in braille.  Cupboards can be labelled with the kind of contents for example, “food”, “tins”, clothes etc. Individual tins and packets can be labelled, “peas”, “soup”, beans etc. The basic familiarity with braille symbols relating to sounds and, in combination, to objects can be a basis for learning to read independently in braille.

The imaginative dimension of stories can be encouraged by using toys, dolls or glove puppets for illustration and stories can be illustrated, initially with braille labelling for key characters and later with the whole text in braille. Independent exercises with tactile diagrams can be used to develop understanding of direction and sensitivity to tactile pattern which is necessary for the discrimination of braille letters and words but the process of learning braille is enhanced by making the process enjoyable.

Just as sighted children learn phonic skills whilst reading interesting stories, blind children can best learn braille in relation to interesting stories.  In the same way, a well illustrated story is more enjoyable for sighted children; shifting their attention between the text and the illustrations.  It is probable that a blind child will learn braille more easily by having stories illustrated in tactile form, either on the page or with separate objects, shifting between braille text and illustrative material.