Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

The Role of Sound in Encouraging Infants with Congenital Blindness to Reach for Objects

Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

The Role of Sound in Encouraging Infants with Congenital Blindness to Reach for Objects

Article excerpt

Abstract: Reaching for sound-producing and silent objects was assessed in seven infants who had been blind from birth. Objects were presented while they were in tactile contact with their bodies, immediately after withdrawal, or without prior contact. The study found that sound elicited reaching earlier than did antecedent tactile contact. These findings are compared with those of previous studies.

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Since the 1950s and 1960s, it has been known that the onset and development of intentional reaching for objects is delayed in children who were born blind (Fraiberg, 1968, 1977; Fraiberg & Freedman, 1964; Norris, Spaulding, & Brodie, 1957). This delay was recently confirmed by Fazzi et al. (2002) and Brambring and his colleagues in a longitudinal study (the "Bielefeld study"; see Brambring, 1996, 2006, 2007; Troester & Brambring, 1993). Even though they received early intervention, the infants in the Bielefeld study were significantly delayed in the acquisition of fine and gross motor skills, especially in those skills that typically require visual-motor coordination. Reaching for objects, one of these skills, was not observed in these infants until they were about 9-12 months in age (Troester & Brambring, 1993). In comparison, object-directed reaches of infants with typical sight tend to be deliberate and relatively controlled by about age 4-5 months (von Hofsten, 1979, 1991; von Hofsten & Ronnqvist, 1988). A delay in the development of reaching that is due to congenital blindness has the potential to reduce early opportunities for exploration and learning about space, objects, people, events, and actions. It is therefore important to investigate the conditions under which early reaching can be elicited in infants who have been blind from birth to enable practitioners to implement appropriate strategies to facilitate learning.

Fraiberg and her colleagues (Fraiberg, 1968, 1977; Fraiberg, Siegel, & Gibson, 1966) were the first to draw specific attention to the development of intentional reaching by infants with congenital blindness. They presented both silent and sound-producing objects (such as a cup or cookie and a bell or rattle, respectively) and found that the infants started to reach for both types of objects between 6 and 8 months, but only when they had held the objects immediately prior to distal presentation (antecedent tactile contact). Some months later, at a median age of almost 9 months, they reached for sound objects that were presented at the midline on a sound cue alone, that is, without antecedent tactile contact. These observations led Fraiberg to conclude not only that there is a general delay in the onset of reaching in infants who are born blind, but also that sound is not as effective as antecedent touch in eliciting early reaches.

Fraiberg argued that these findings could best be explained in terms of the infants' emerging knowledge about the properties of objects and the world around them, particularly knowledge about the permanence and independent existence of objects. She believed that prior to the onset of reaching, infants with congenital blindness live in a world of transient objects that have a reality only when they are in tactile contact with the objects. The onset of reaching for objects after antecedent tactile contact suggests an emerging ability to represent an object briefly as being "out there." The representational qualities of sound, on the other hand, are not yet understood at this stage, Fraiberg thought, since sounds tend to be attributed to actions or indeterminate external events, not to reachable objects. The emergence of reaching on a sound cue alone in the second half of their first year indicates that infants who are congenitally blind have achieved Stage 4 of object permanence, the level of cognitive development that Piaget (1954) believed is necessary for the ability to search for objects hidden from view, which also occurs between 8 and 12 months in sighted children. …

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