American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2017       BEING WITH OTHERS

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I Feel for You
How to Teach Your Blind Child about Empathy and Social Interaction

by Mary McDonach

Reprinted with permission from <www.wonderbaby.org>

A group of blind and sighted children dance together.

From the Editor: The mother of a blind daughter, Mary McDonach is a native of Scotland. She is a frequent contributor to the Wonderbaby website for parents of blind children, and several of her articles have been reprinted in Future Reflections.

What do you believe is the single most difficult thing that we as parents have to teach our children?

Could it be toilet training?

Teaching a child about continence can take years of cleaning up after little accidents, understanding about wet beds in the middle of the night, and being patient about finding the public toilets in the supermarket for the third time in a single visit.

That's not easy.

Or are you dreading sex education for your little monster?

Do you worry about putting a "loaded weapon"—knowledge about human procreation—into tiny, merciless hands; living for weeks at a time with every question and enquiry into the functions of the human body, complete with medically correct words?

That's certainly a tough one.

But if your child is blind or seriously visually impaired, have you thought about how you will teach him about empathy? Have you considered how important it is to educate your child about the perspectives of others, and how critically different this learning will necessarily be from the way a sighted child would learn about it?
To become whole, happy, well-functioning members of society, our blind children need us to rework and modify the lessons that sighted children receive visually every day, in order that those lessons can be of use in their primarily nonvisual world.

What Is Empathy and Why Is It Important?

To empathize with someone is to understand how that person is feeling and why he or she is responding in a certain way. Empathy helps us to anticipate how others will react to us and makes us nicer people.
When I first began reading about empathy, I had a basic understanding of what the word meant, but almost no concept of just how important it is in our everyday lives. Here's a quick rundown:

Essentially, empathy is what makes society work. It is how we come to an understanding of ourselves, by looking at the world from the perspective of another as though we were that person.

If your child is blind or visually impaired, this lesson will be the most difficult, most worthwhile, and easily the most valuable thing you will ever teach him.

What the Experts Say about Empathy

Children have fun playing Braille Twister.For most children, sight plays a crucial role in developing empathy. Babies begin by looking at you to see how you are feeling or reacting to a toy they are playing with or to a silly sound they just made. You've probably seen very young children and babies play with a toy, then turn to look at their parents. If they see a smile, then they will laugh and continue playing with the toy. That's empathy, the understanding that someone else approves of what they are doing.

A sighted child will also point or gaze at an object to indicate her interest in that object. When she sees that the same object holds both your attention and hers, she can go on to examine the object and what you know about it.

Children use these simple forms of empathy to assign mental states to others and themselves; to determine if a person knows a thing, or is being deceitful, or fair in a judgment; if someone is happy, or sad, or bored; fundamentally, it's what your child needs to build social competence.

Involved in this process is the ability to pass "false belief tasks" as a measurement of the child's ability to take the perspective of another. A false belief task is a test that shows us if and when a child knows a thing that someone else does not know. Will the child realize that the other person does not have the same knowledge that the child does?

Yes, that does sound a bit like reverse logic, but here's a simple example. A child, John, is given a closed tube of candy wafers and asked, "What is in the tube?" John answers that there is candy in the tube. The tube is opened to show the child that—surprise!—the tube is filled with buttons.

If the child is then introduced to a second child and asked, "What will Michael think is in the tube?" John will answer that Michael will think there are buttons in the tube. At this stage John is unable to differentiate what he knows from what Michael knows. He is unable to take Michael's perspective. John has failed the false belief task. A 1995 study indicated that blind children were often eleven years old before they could pass a false belief task that sighted children of four years old were able to pass.

How Can I Teach My Child about Empathy?

All children have to see empathy in action in order to understand it. Thankfully, sight is not absolutely essential for this message. Unfortunately, without sight the message will take longer to impart to your child because he will not have the myriad of visual reinforcements of the message—but he will get there.

Psychologists and educators have spent many years researching how blind and seriously visually impaired children learn. As parents we need to know that there are specific challenges our children will encounter and understand how to equip them most effectively to reach their potential.

Ultimately what you want for your child is what everyone wants for their children: you want to help your child to become a moral, ethical, confident person who exhibits self-control, altruism, and dignity; a happy person, comfortable in her own skin.

It's a big job.

Don't let us keep you!

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