Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Divergent Development of Manual Skills in Children Who Are Blind or Sighted

Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Divergent Development of Manual Skills in Children Who Are Blind or Sighted

Article excerpt

Abstract: This empirical study compared the average ages at which four children with congenital blindness acquired 32 fine motor skills with age norms for sighted children. The results indicated that the children experienced extreme developmental delays in the acquisition of manual skills and a high degree of variability in developmental delays within and across six categories of fine-motor skills.


A great number of childhood activities are based on manual skills. For example, most children's games like building and painting or throwing and catching call for fine-motor dexterity. Moreover, nearly all daily living skills, such as eating and drinking or dressing and undressing, require manual competencies. Thus, the term manual skills covers a heterogeneous group of activities that lack any generally accepted classification scheme. The simple distinction among holding, exploring, and manipulative skills does not suffice because the majority of manual skills are not just manipulative but are generally preceded by holding and exploring actions, making them multidimensional. However, such a multidimensional description makes it more difficult to compare manual skills with each other because it is often not clear which components make the strongest contribution to the acquisition of a specific skill.

Because of the dominance of vision in the acquisition of manual skills, one has to anticipate major developmental delays for this domain in children who are blind. Fraiberg and her colleagues were the first to document these delays in detail (Fraiberg, 1968, 1977; Fraiberg, Siegel, & Gibson, 1966). They found that infants who are blind--like sighted infants--open their hands from the third month of life onward, but, unlike sighted infants, they do not begin to engage in exploring and grasping behavior. Frequently, their hands remain in a neonatal position; that is, the hands are held open at the shoulder level. Infants who are blind hardly ever play with their hands in a midline position or transfer an object from one side of the body to the other. With the exception of exploring the faces of familiar persons, the 10 children who were blind in Fraiberg's (1977) longitudinal study were initially inactive manually. It was only at age 8-9 months that they began to reach toward and grasp a familiar noisemaking object without the object being first presented at their fingertips.

In contrast, in a study by Troster and Brambring (1993), only 3 of 16 l-year-old children who were blind (18.8%) grasped a well-known musical clock without having first felt it with their fingers. This divergent result is probably due to differences in the presentation of tasks: a testlike situation in Troster and Brambring's study compared with the repeated presentation of one object in a familiar home environment in Fraiberg's study (1977).

The findings of both studies confirmed that grasping behavior triggered by an auditory stimulus emerges later in development than grasping behavior that is triggered visually (Bigelow, 1983, 1986). There are several possible reasons for this difference: (1) Vision delivers stimulating information on the attributes of an object (its size, form, and color), which encourages a child to reach toward it (Gibson, 2002; Webster & Roe, 1998); (2) auditory stimuli are frequently discontinuous and thus less contingent for reaching behavior than are visual stimuli (Fraiberg, 1977); (3) not all noises, for example, a bird singing in a tree, represent an object that can be touched (Webster & Roe, 1998), making it far more difficult to forge a link between an auditory stimulus and an object than between a visual stimulus and an object; (4) the spatial position of objects can be localized more precisely with vision than with hearing--greatly facilitating reaching behavior; and (5) the intensive listening reactions to auditory signals that are frequently observed in children who are blind may lead to an inhibition of grasping (Ross & Tobin, 1997). …

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