Beating Blindisms

About Sarah Blake LaRose

Sarah Blake LaRose is a freelance writer and a professor of Biblical Hebrew at Anderson University School of Theology in Anderson, Indiana. She is one of three blind academic scholars who received the Jacob Bolotin Award from the National Federation of the Blind in 2016 in recognition of innovative work in the field of access to biblical language texts and tools for people who are blind.

Twenty-five times I had written it… “I will not put my hand in my eye.” I had 475 more times to go. That was nineteen more pages. I was going to be there all night.

I put another piece of paper in the braille writer and wrote twenty-five more sentences. Anger welled up in me. I would figure out a way to stop this habit which I had had since I was too young to remember.

By the end of the fourth page, I had begun to cry. I was not a fast writer; and besides wanting to be finished with this horrible chore, I was ashamed. I was being punished for something I couldn’t control, no matter how much I wanted to. My parents didn’t know how many times a day I rebuked myself for this behavior. “You’re doing it again, stupid,” I would tell myself. “You said you were going to stop.”

I don’t remember the end of that night. I think my mother gave in and allowed me to stop shortly after I reached that one hundredth sentence. Seventeen years would pass before I would conquer the habit.

The habit is commonly known as “eye pressing”. I have lost count of how many times I have seen parents ask the same questions on email lists. “How can I get my child to stop pressing her eyes? Is it dangerous?” Less often, I see similar questions about other behaviors.

Blind children often exhibit a number of behaviors which provide them some kind of stimulation or enable them to communicate somehow. These behaviors are so common that they have been labeled with the term “blindisms”. In this article I will discuss some strategies for helping children to modify these behaviors; however, I also want to emphasize another fact. Not every behavior that a blind child exhibits can be classified correctly as a “blindism”. Some behaviors,, such as biting and tantrums, are commonly seen in children of a certain developmental level. When addressing any child’s behavior problems, it is important to think about what the behavior is accomplishing as well as the cause for it.

Eye pressing

Opinions differ regarding the effects of eye pressing. It often causes the eyes to appear sunken; but as a person who did it for many years I am not convinced that it is dangerous to the eyes. That probably depends on the force the person uses. I never used much force, and there are no studies to prove whether the same things would happen to my eyes if I had never pressed. It is possible that a person could get an infection in the eye from rubbing or pressing with unclean hands; however, I have never known this to happen to any of my acquaintances.

The biggest problem with eye pressing is that it is considered “socially unacceptable”. It is not something most people do, even though it is probably as “normal” for a blind person as biting one’s nails is for anyone. This is the reason that stopping is so difficult. It is not something that the blind person does consciously.

Many children who press their eyes begin doing so shortly before their first birthdays. Eye pressing may have a number of causes. I have read about children who did it because their eyes hurt. A popular explanation is that pressing on the eye causes the retina to be stimulated so that the child sees flashes of light. I do not
recall having this experience. Like many people, I am unable to identify or explain the reason for the behavior.

Many children press their eyes more when they are tired or upset. I recommend that parents and caregivers not choose these times to discourage the behavior. It is important for the child to be able to work through other things at these times; adding eye pressing to the agenda can be overwhelming emotionally.

My advice for discouraging eye pressing is to help the child become aware of her body parts and their relationship to one another. One family has had success with using verbal reminders, at first accompanied by physical prompts. “Hands down” is the verbal cue which they use. I have suggested to other families that use of a cue such as “Where are your hands?” might encourage the child to think more often about what his hands are doing and whether or not it is an appropriate activity. The advantage of a question like this is that it can be used at other times when the hands are engaged in
appropriate activities and will help the child to build a healthy sense of self and use the question as a monitor rather than as a reprimand. Furthermore, “Where are your hands?” can also be used to address other behaviors which may occur in addition to or as a replacement for eye pressing.

Rocking and Bouncing

Rocking and bouncing are other behaviors common to blind children. Some researchers propose that rocking develops as a response to a need for vestibular stimulation and an inability to move freely in the environment because of overprotection, failure of caregivers to encourage movement, or restricted movement which is the result of medical problems. As with eye pressing, body awareness is essential for enabling a child or adult to successfully eliminate the behavior. In addition, the person will also need to replace the eliminated behavior with an appropriate form of vestibular stimulation.

Spinning

Spinning is another behavior often seen in blind children. Spinning may accomplish a number of things. As a former spinner, I can recall enjoying the experience of watching things “go by” as I spun. I can also recall enjoying the experience of feeling “wind” if I held my arms out.

Spinning is an activity enjoyed by young sighted children as well. The difference between the experience of the blind and sighted child is that sighted children are more able to use appropriate means of satisfying their desire for spinning. These same means may be just as useful for blind children, but the blind child is unable to seek out appropriate means so uses what is readily available: his own body. Examples of appropriate outlets for spinning include merry-go-rounds, sit ‘n spins, tire swings,etc.
Blind children also need the same kind of vigorous exercise which sighted children get by running, jumping and climbing and can participate in these activities with or without modifications depending on their individual abilities and the safety of a given environment.

Headbanging

Many parents have written about their children headbanging. Most of these children were beginning to develop communication skills but did not yet have the ability to ask for what they wanted or needed. This behavior is analogous to tantrums which are common in sighted children of the same age. A growing number of parents are finding that teaching their children some signs to use for making requests not only helps to eliminate the problem behaviors but also promotes the development of verbal
communication.

The Importance of Teaching Appropriate Behaviors

When eliminating any behavior which is socially inappropriate, parents and other caregivers should remember that the behavior serves a purpose for the child and must be replaced by an acceptable behavior which serves the same purpose or eliminates the need for the problem behavior. In the case of eye pressing, keeping the child’s hands may or may not serve to decrease the child’s desire to eye press.

Choosing Your Battles

When a behavior is persistent, caregivers might be wise to choose their battles carefully. Addressing the behavior at a later time or waiting until the child is old enough to participate in developing strategies to address the problem might make the attempt more successful.

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