A loving gaze helps firm up the bond between parent and child, building social skills that last a lifetime. But what happens when mom is blind? A new study shows that the children of sightless mothers develop healthy communication skills and can even outstrip the children of parents with normal vision.
Eye contact is one of the most important aspects of communication, according to Atsushi Senju, a developmental cognitive neuroscientist at Birkbeck, University of London. Autistic people don't naturally make eye contact, however, and they can become anxious when urged to do so. Children for whom face-to-face contact is drastically reduced—babies severely neglected in orphanages or children who are born blind—are more likely to have traits of autism, such as the inability to form attachments, hyperactivity, and cognitive impairment.
To determine whether eye contact is essential for developing normal communication skills, Senju and colleagues chose a less extreme example: babies whose primary caregivers (their mothers) were blind. These children had other forms of loving interaction, such as touching and talking. But the mothers were unable to follow the babies' gaze or teach the babies to follow theirs, which normally helps children learn the importance of the eyes in communication.
Apparently, the children don't need the help. Senju and colleagues studied five babies born to blind mothers, checking the children's proficiency at 6 to 10 months, 12 to 15 months, and 24 to 47 months on several measures of age-appropriate communications skills. At the first two visits, babies watched videos in which a woman shifted her gaze or moved different parts of her face while corresponding changes in the baby's face were recorded. Babies also followed the gaze of a woman sitting at a table and looking at various objects.
The babies also played with unfamiliar adults in a test that checked for autistic traits, such as the inability to maintain eye contact, not smiling in response to the adult's smile, and being unable to switch attention from one toy to a new one. At each age, the researchers assessed the children's visual, motor, and language skills.
When the results were compared to scores of children of "sighted" parents, the five children of blind mothers did just as well on the tests, the researchers report today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Learning to communicate with their blind mothers also seemed to give the babies some advantages. For example, even at the youngest age tested, the babies directed fewer gazes toward their mothers than to adults with normal vision, suggesting that they were already learning that strangers would communicate differently than would their mothers. When they were between 12 and 15 months old, the babies of blind mothers were also more verbal than were other children of the same age. And the youngest babies of blind mothers outscored their peers in developmental tests—especially visual tasks such as remembering the location of a hidden toy or switching their attention from one toy to a new one presented by the experimenter.
Senju likens their skills to those of children who grow up bilingual; the need to shift between modes of communication may boost the development of their social skills, he says. "Our results suggest that the babies aren't passively copying the expressions of adults, but that they are actively learning and changing the way to best communicate with others."
"The use of sighted babies of blind mothers is a clever and important idea," says developmental scientist Andrew Meltzoff of the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences in Seattle. "The mother's blindness may teach a child at an early age that certain people turn to look at things and others don't. Apparently these little babies can learn that not everyone reacts the same way."
Meltzoff adds that there are many ways to pay attention to a child. "Doubtless, the blind mothers use touch, sounds, tugs on the arm, and tender pats on the back. Our babies want communication, love, and attention. The fact that these can come through any route is a remarkable demonstration of the adaptability of the human child."