Just when parents are hoping their blind children can please, just be “normal,” they might see strange behaviors that look anything but normal.
These behaviors include eye pressing; hand flicking; spinning; rocking back and forth or side to side, with the whole body or just the head; jumping in place for long periods. They’ve historically been called “blindisms” or “stim” – for “stimulation.”
Writers and researchers on the subject believe this “hunger” for physical stimulation is real, that the child needs or wants something and is trying to express that need. They say it’s important to figure out what that need is and then find a way to meet it, preferably with more socially acceptable alternatives.
Eye pressing or rocking might be solutions for the child who feels bored, sad, anxious or tired. Spinning might be a way for a young child to orient herself to her environment. So these writers suggest, nagging only intensifies the anxiety or sadness. Instead, parents need to pull their children into other stimulating activities.
When children press their eyes, electrical currents are produced in the retina, according to an article from the League for Friends of the Blind. Children with retinal disorders are the most avid eye pressers. Eye poking can start as early as infancy, according to an article titled “Blindisms: Stereotype Behavior” This might lead to eye pressing. Eye poking causes atrophy of the fat tissue in the orbit, and of the orbit’s bony rim. Skin around the eye often becomes darker. The resulting deep-set eyes may be a cosmetic problem.
The article also states eye poking possibly leads to retinal detachment. Because the child does not tell anyone about his visual changes due to the detachment, it might not be noticed until so late that surgical results may be poor.
Some behaviors that seem like “blindisms” might come about because they produce visual stimuli that children like to watch. For example, a child who hits her forehead now and then, and then quiets as though watching something in front of her, might be seeing light flashes produced by movement in the detaching retina.
In an article on self-stimulation by Dr. Ed Hammer of the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center, the child’s “hunger” is the input and the stim (or the blindism) is the resulting output. Hammer says the central nervous system grows during the child’s first 12 years of life, and some stim behavior is part of the child’s neural development. Some stims, such as the child bringing the lips together, satisfy the child but also teach the M and B sounds. A child’s impairment might affect the way the nervous system needs stimulation or the amount that is needed. Stims can serve as a way for these children’s central nervous systems to jump-start the next level of maturation.
The League for Friends of the Blind explains it a bit differently. The child’s developing brain wants input, be it visual or motor stimulation. If there is not enough meaningful physical input through normal activity, the child turns to her own body and uses repetitive movements as a substitute.
Parents who believe their children are stuck in stim behavior can make opportunities for movement that lead to more complex behaviors, Hammer said. Parents can use toy play to allow the child to use stim movements in acceptable ways. For example, if a girl flicks her hands, the parents can give her a bracelet with bells or colorful objects. So, the stim becomes a more acceptable way to enjoy the bracelet.
Writers and researchers in the blindness field have recommendations for solving the hunger problems and helping children outgrow the stims.
One remedy for eye poking is to use glasses with side shields, but they need to be used as soon as poking starts or else little fingers will make their way around the edges of the glasses, Hammer said.
Sarah J. Blake, once an eye poker, agrees that the stim behavior serves a purpose for the child and must be replaced with something else. She explains how parents can help their children in an article called “Beating Blindisms.” Eye pressing is as normal for a blind person as biting of nails or sucking of thumbs is for a sighted person. One reason for eye pressing, she says, is that the child sees flashes of light as the retina is stimulated. Others do so because their eyes hurt.
Asking the child “Where are your hands?” helps the child become aware of his body parts and their relationships with each other. The question also acts as a check on the child, rather than a reprimand.
Blake said she also was a “spinner” so she could watch things go by or feel the “wind” as she held out her arms. To help quell this activity, she recommends finding a socially acceptable way for the child to spin, such as a merry-go-round or a tire swing.
Parents need to pick their battles carefully when they decide it’s time to get rid of a blindism, Blake said. One approach is to wait until the child is old enough to take part in making strategies to deal with the problem.
Family Connect, a service of the American Foundation for the Blind, has an article with helpful suggestions. Remember to give your child attention and praise when, for example, he isn’t rocking or poking his eyes while waiting to pet the pony at the petting zoo. Giving him a big hug and telling him you’re proud of the way he’s waiting his turn is a good way to reinforce that behavior.
As your child becomes more aware of other children, let him know that most others don’t have the habit you’re trying to break him of. Let him know, in some way that doesn’t make him angry or embarrassed, how others respond to his behavior. “There’s a little girl in the sandbox who looks scared because you’re waving your hands around. If you keep them still she might come and play with you.” It can be hard for young children to understand how others perceive them, so your child may not be ready for this type of feedback.
Ask family members and friends not to encourage your child’s self-stimulatory behavior because that will make it harder for him to break the habit as he gets older. At the same time, make it clear that you don’t want them to scold or tease your child about it. They can help distract your child from these behaviors by playing with him or her in some other way by engaging in an activity. If they’re interested in finding out more about these behaviors, you might want to suggest that they take a look at FamilyConnect.
Disclaimer: Please note that the websites and webpages shown below are not all inclusive of all websites containing this type of information. Always consult your child’s health care provider(s) and educators for additional reliable and accurate information.
- Family Connect (a website of the American Foundation for the Blind): Repetitive Behaviors: What Are They?
- Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired: Beating Blindisms, written by Sarah J. Blake: http://www.tsbvi.edu/seehear/spring02/blindisms.htm
- National Federation of the Blind: Self-Stimulation: Dr. Hammer Responds: https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr17/issue3/f170308.htm
- Parent-to-Parent, A project of the Kentucky School for the Blind. Blindisms: What are they? What can be done to correct them? https://dspace.kdla.ky.gov/jspui/bitstream/handle/10602/14115/Summer_07_Parent_to_parent.pdf?sequence=1