Language Development in Toddlers Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
As toddlers accumulate some vocabulary, they begin to use language to communicate what they want—and what they don’t want. By age two, most toddlers can follow simple two-step directions, such as “eat a bite and put down your spoon” and may be able to put two or three words together to express themselves, such as, “me do” or “want juice.” Your child can now use words to communicate, but he also uses gestures, cries, and other actions, such as pulling away from you when he doesn’t want to put on his jacket or pushing his bowl off the high chair tray when he doesn’t want his cereal. He understands more language than he can express.
It’s important for you to keep talking to your visually impaired child in an ongoing way, just as it was when he was a baby. Now that he understands your words, focus on activities and objects that interest him or that you want to share with him to help him better understand the world. Relate what you are saying to his previous experiences. For example, when he helps you to get a carton of ice cream out of the cooler at the supermarket, talk about how cold it feels and what flavor ice cream is in the carton. Read to him and share objects or pictures that are tied to the story in some way.
Although most toddlers are able to use language to express themselves, children of the same age can show quite a range of ability, from those talking in two- to three-word sentences to those talking in paragraphs! At this age, children’s receptive language—their understanding of others’ speech—is still greater than their expressive language (their ability to share their thoughts).
You may notice your child repeating back what you say to him. For example, if you say, “I hear your babysitter coming,” he may repeat back, “Hear sitter coming.” This behavior is known as echolalia and is common among toddlers. However, echolalia can be more frequent and last longer among children who are blind or visually impaired, so you want to pay attention to see if your child does this most of the time then you may want to think about finding ways to help him learn to use his own language spontaneously (see “Building Language Skills in Preschoolers Who Are Visually Impaired”).
You may find that your toddler refers to himself by name, instead of using pronouns—saying “Joe go slide,” for instance, rather than, “I go slide.” Pronouns such as “I,” “you,” “he,” “him,” and “they” are tricky for all children to learn, but they often seem to be harder for children with visual impairments. One strategy that may work is to get behind your child and whisper in his ear what he should say as another adult engages him in a conversation. Demonstrate how pronouns are used when you speak to your child and encourage him to refer to himself as “I.”
Begin to show your child the kinds of gestures people typically use in conversation that he may not be able to see, such as shaking and nodding your head, motioning for someone to come join you, or frowning to show unhappiness. Describe them when you see others using them and encourage your child to use gestures during natural times in conversations—waving “bye-bye” is a good example.
Concepts involving space, such as “in” and “out,” and “in front of” and “behind,” are often hard for visually impaired children to grasp fully. By involving your child in everyday activities, such as taking the spoons out of the drawer and putting them on the table before dinner and describing what you and he are doing, you can help your child learn such concepts. Remember to be consistent in the words you use to describe your actions!