Children who are blind face many hurdles to successful interactions in their world. They can’t see expressions: the roll of the eyes, an ugly face, and a sideways look at another person in a conversation. They can’t see things that might interest them: an inviting candy counter in a store, cute dresses on a rack in the front, a big toy turtle to jump on.

But they have some wonderful aids to social exploration. First, they are honing their own perceptual senses – their ability to understand complex auditory cues, to ask questions, to imagine what they might want and then go after it. Hopefully, they also have their white canes, some friends and parents who can explain the world to them.

The first thing for parents to know is that they need to curb their children’s unnecessary movements such as resting their hands in their eyes or poking their eyes, jumping while they talk, fluttering their hands in the air, rocking back and forth. These movements have their places. It’s OK to jump around when you’re five years old and you’re excited, or when you’re showing off your athletic skills. It’s OK to jump and jive to some good jazz. But some blind children make these movements for no apparent reason. They need to understand that rocking back and forth while talking is a distraction to sighted people (and blind people who can hear the voice changes resulting from rocking.) At times when most children are terribly concerned about having pals, these movements often make other people uncomfortable and they put the child at a distance from others.

Parents could explain how these habits appear to others. Frequent reminders keep the child thinking about the bad habit and, hopefully, encouraging stopping it.

A second point is all about facing and at least appearing to look at others. While working at a fine-arts program for children who are blind, I discovered that many of them were talking to each other while facing various directions. Some of them had their heads down toward their chests. This is another problem that puzzles people who are not blind.

Encourage children to keep their heads up and their eyes open, to face the conversation and to look interested with a pleasant smile. Suggest they turn their heads slightly as the conversation moves from one person to another. Describe how visual people use facial expressions to convey sadness, a smirk or surprise. Experiment with having the child uses his/her face to express thoughts. How might he, for example, narrow his eyes and poof out his lips to express comic disapproval? How might she flit her eyelashes to note interest? How might she turn to you and make a little covert smirk to communicate a private thought?

How can children use auditory cues to find out what’s happening? What does the ice cream truck sound like when it rolls by your house? What does it mean when a bunch of people scrape their chairs on the floor? Are they getting up? Why? In what direction is the fire engine traveling?

It’s OK for children who are blind to ask questions and touch things. It’s good for them to “see” their world in any ways they can. But it’s important to let children know that a steady barrage of questions might not be socially acceptable, and that a kid might spill a glass of milk if she reaches out to grab it and ends up pulling it back onto herself. Take children to stores, art festivals and concerts. Let them go up and talk to the violin player after the show, or talk to an artist about how a picture was made. Allow them to touch different kinds of fabrics and styles of clothing in the store. Show him/her what’s in style, but let him/her choose clothes that feel nice and fit well. Don’t be afraid to say, “that’s not your best color,” and explain what it looks like. This will give a child at least a metaphoric idea of what color is like. He/she might never see sky blue or fire engine red, but certainly will gain some sort of perception of the color by comparing it to things that can be touched, tasted or smelled.

If your blind child is reaching for a pitcher of water or a stack of glasses, make certain she reaches out confidently but slowly. For example, using the back of the hand to make contact with an object and then turn the hand around and see what it is. Have your child pull her hands back slowly after a reach. Why? Kids can unintentionally spill food or hot or cold liquids onto their companions.

Another key part of social skills is trying to figure out when it’s the child’s turn in line to ask a question or order food. Here’s where the cane comes in especially handy. Have the child put her cane, carefully and gently, outward to touch the heel of the person in front of her. Have her listen for sound changes that might determine the line is moving forward. Or tell her to ask the person in front of her when it’s good to move up.

If she doesn’t know whether it’s her turn or not to order her burger, she might look up and ask, “is it my turn?” or “are you ready for me?” It’s easy to make a mistake and speak out of turn, but taking a little care will show that your child is polite and knows how to handle herself in social situations.

Show your child how to break into a conversation in a polite way. Encourage your child to listen to the conversation before breaking in. If he decides he wants to join in, he might walk slowly but confidently into the group and smile. Then he might say, “Hey, can I join you?” That way, he gives the others time to notice he is there and wants to talk. It is OK to say something like, “let me know if you need to leave” or “what do you think about this idea?”

A person who uses a cane confidently, looks ahead, smiles and appears to know what’s happening is a more desirable conversation partner than someone who blunders into a crowd and starts talking willy-nilly. Your child probably understands that often other kids, like he, are nervous about social interactions, appearance and nuances. He’ll do fine if he acts confident, asks appropriate questions and is sincere and open with others.

  • WonderBaby.org: I feel for you: How to teach your blind child about empathy and social interaction. Go to: http://www.wonderbaby.org/articles/empathy
  • Perkins School for the Blind: http://www.perkins.org/stories/blog/developing-social-skills-in-students-who-are-blind
  • Texas School for the Blind: Do’s And Don’ts For Teaching Social Skills: http://www.tsbvi.edu/component/content/article/7-instructional-resources/3718
  • Family Connect, a program of the American Foundation for the Blind: Social Communication Skills: How to Adapt Your Language With Your Blind or Visually Impaired Child. Go to: http://www.familyconnect.org/info/browse-by-age/infants-and-toddlers/growth-and-development-iandt/social-communication-skills/1235