You have been told that your child has a visual impairment and that you will need to help them learn through non-sighted means.
Your initial reaction may be: "I can't do that, I don't have the skills. How will I know what to do?" You will have more questions than answers at this stage, but it will help if you remember that your visually-impaired child has the same basic needs as any child.
Sighted children learn by watching and imitating what others do and by being exposed to and interacting with a sighted world. Blind and partially-sighted children do not have the same opportunities for this incidental learning - but your intervention can make a huge difference.
You and your child will discover ways of communicating, which will sometimes be different but no less meaningful. You will find creative ways in which to help them to develop into a competent and independent individual.
I have met many parents of visually-impaired children who have been where you are now and I have watched them grow in confidence and become educators and advocates for their children.
Getting the support you need
Perhaps you have already met a number of professionals who have offered their support. Use their experience, which will be the result of their having met a range of visually-impaired children. Your LEA (local education authority) should have allocated you a teacher specifically trained to support children with visual impairment.
It is never too early to begin this relationship. It should be available to you and your child from infancy through to your child going on to college, university, or to work.
Your teacher will be able to allay some of your anxieties about your child's educational opportunities. With appropriate support, most blind children are able to attend their neighbourhood school or a local mainstream school with a specialist resource.
Your teacher will visit you and your child on a mutually-agreed basis. They will tell you about local facilities and work with you to provide a pre-school programme which will help meet your child's needs.
When your child goes to playgroup and on to school your teacher will be there to offer a range of support. Your teacher will be able to loan you books and other publications which will help. They will also keep you up to date with news from RNIB and specialist schools, which provide conferences and courses as well as play weekends where you can meet other parents and children.
Developing other senses
Your child may well reach some of their developmental milestones at different times to their peers because they may need to take a different route – but reach them they will. You will need to encourage your child to develop their sense of touch, smell and taste along with hearing and listening skills.
These skills do not just happen. They happen because you plan for them to do so by providing a stimulating environment which in turns provides exciting and challenging non-visual activities for your child – with you on hand to give support and verbal interpretation when appropriate.
Playtime is important for all children. Your child will learn to play alone, but you will need to help them develop play skills. You will need to watch your child exploring toys and objects in their own way before you can help them to take that play a stage further.
During their first days and months, you will be observing your child closely in order to understand and learn from their reactions to a range of stimuli. You will soon discover how your child expresses their interest. At this stage your child's world is for the most part what they can hear and feel, so thinking about voice tone and proximity of people and objects is crucial.
Your child will learn about how you are feeling through listening to your voice and how you handle them. Remember that if your child cannot hear, smell or feel you, you are not there.
Opportunities for stimulating play
Loss of vision can result in lack of motivation, so it is important to provide stimuli for your child in order that they do not become passive. Toys and objects need to be within easy reach – with small toys being placed in a container so that they do not lose them.
You might like to consider presenting your child with suction toys, which you can secure to their play tray. These toys often provide sound feedback, as well as a variety of tactile experiences, which your child will enjoy and you will not have to keep picking them up off the floor! You need to remember that tactile exploration takes longer than visual understanding of what it is like – so give them time and opportunity to explore.
You will sometimes need to model behaviours by taking your child's hand or arm and demonstrating a movement that will give him a pleasing result. For example, shaking, batting and pulling toys will often result in making sound or music and so motivate your child to repeat the action. We call this cause and effect. At the infant stage you can introduce musical toys and mobiles that will stimulate auditory skills and will ultimately lead to babbling, head turning, anticipation, reaching and exploration.
When you and your family and friends are choosing toys, 'look' at them with your eyes closed and try to assess what sort of feedback your child will get. Will your child be able to handle them easily and turn them over? Are they interesting to feel? Will the toy help develop a skill or give significant pleasure?
As there is an enormous range of toys available, it may help you in the early days to ask your visiting teacher to make some recommendations. However you will very quickly become the expert in finding toys that will suit your child and you will be recommending toys to your teacher. That is the way it works!
Tactile exploration and sound recognition
Children often enjoy exploring ordinary household objects that can be manipulated easily and are functional. Blind children are no exception. And as your child gets older, explain what the object is, what it is made of and its function. This, alongside their play and exploration, will give them an understanding that will lead them towards developing a whole range of skills.
You learn by observing your child and they also learn by observing. They will listen to the sounds and voices around them. It is important that they have the opportunity to identify sounds. What makes it, where it comes from, what it might mean, does it precede something enjoyable?
You will need to reassure them at times that although the sound they hear is unpleasant it will not hurt them. Blind children recognise voices very quickly and need to be able to put names to voices. It is important for unfamiliar people to say who they are so that your child can store the name in their 'voice bank'.
You will at times need to eliminate other sounds, e.g. the TV or radio, so that they can locate sounds and begin to make sense of them. For example, the sound of a car on the drive may mean that a parent has come home.
Your child needs you to give them a 'label' for everything. The label for the object they drink from may be mug, cup or bottle but you need to use the word consistently when handing the object to your child so that they can build their word bank. Your child needs to understand through tactile exploration, reinforced by your verbal description, that mugs come in many shapes and sizes but one word is used to identify them.
You will soon learn the language you need to use to help your child understand their world and remember that you do not have to do everything yourself. Enlist the help of family members, friends and professionals – all of whom will have their own special gifts which will complement yours. Your child will benefit from what you all have to offer.