Using the Senses: Developing the Senses in a Multiply Disabled Child
Our senses are our gateway to the world. They are the way through which we obtain information, gain understanding, and interact with the objects and people around us. If your child has a visual impairment and additional disabilities, she needs to use all of her functional (remaining) senses—vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste—to get the most information possible about the world and what is happening in her environment. Learning to use information from her senses together and effectively will help her integrate input gathered from different parts of her body to enable her to understand what is happening at any given moment.
The majority of children who are visually impaired have some usable vision. Vision is the sense through which children potentially learn the most about their world. It is used for both gathering information nearby (what can be touched) and at a distance (beyond arm’s reach). For young children whose vision is developing typically, 80 to 90 percent of what they learn about the world comes to them through vision. Therefore, if your child’s vision is impaired or absent, in all likelihood learning is going to be affected in some way. For this reason, it is important for children with impaired 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, her teacher of students with visual impairments may be able to work with her to improve her processing of what her 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 her to use her vision efficiently. If your child has a physical disability that affects her head or upper body control, you may find it helpful to talk with a physical or occupational therapist or other members of her educational team about strategies that can be used to support her head and upper body. You may find that once she is in a stable position, she will be able to use her vision more effectively.
For some children, the more experiences they have that allow them to build 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 her in using the blender to make a milkshake by having her pour the ingredients into the container with you and then pressing the buttons to operate it, she’ll start to know what the blender is and what it is used for. Once she has developed some familiarity with it, you may find that she suddenly sees it on the counter when she is 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 a visual impairment, a child whose hearing is impaired needs to have many different kinds of experiences in order to give meaning to what she hears. For example, if she notices a sound from an object that she can touch, show her the object and help her explore it so that she understands it more fully. When touching what she hears isn’t possible, describe what she is hearing to her so that she understands 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 her 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. For example, don’t call the object she drinks from a “cup” one day and a “mug” the next; rather, pick one term and stick with it.
Touch is an extremely important sense for a child who has a visual impairment. Many children with visual impairments 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 as a way of exploring the world, beginning in infancy. You can use the hand-under-hand technique to help her reach out to touch things in the environment. Also, point out to her the different characteristics of what she is touching—for example, that her fork has four prongs or the water feels warm. Encourage your child to use two hands when touching. If she has limitations in using one or both of her hands, you might want to talk with members of her educational team about strategies for getting both hands to work together to explore and gather information through touch.
Some children are resistant to 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 her sense of touch, look for ways to help her feel safe when she is touching something. For example, rather than asking her to touch an object she has never encountered before, begin with things that are familiar to her and introduce unfamiliar objects gradually over time. The use of the hand-under-hand technique is often effective in helping children become more comfortable with touch.
If your child will potentially be 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 her development of skills, use tactile symbols or braille in activities at home or in school and in daily life. (See “Symbol Systems” and “Methods for Literacy” for more information.)
Touch is also critical in techniques that people who are visually impaired use for travel. For example, if your child uses a cane or other mobility device, she will learn to identify surfaces and obstacles she touches with her cane, or she may use a travel technique called trailing, in which she lightly touches the wall using the back of her hand as she walks in order to get tactile information about her 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 she 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 her educational team, especially an occupational therapist or speech therapist, to get some ideas for increasing her 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. For example, you can show her how to bring a spoonful of food to her mouth so she can smell it in a more socially polite way.
Using the Senses Together
People generally use more than one sense at a time. When your child eats a snack, she may look at her food, smell it, taste it, and use her hands to manipulate a spoon and bring the food to her mouth. She may hear sizzling noises if you are heating her snack or listen to you describe the food or encourage her to use her spoon appropriately. Children with visual impairments 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 she 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 her 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.