Cognitive, Emotional, and Haptic Development in Infants with Visual Impairments

Cognitive, Emotional, and Haptic Development in Infants with Visual Impairments

Project Overview

Toward the end of their first year, sighted infants coordinate their attention toward a social partner and an object of mutual interest, show a preferential emotional bonding to their main caregivers, and decrease mouthing of objects. Despite their associations to better language, emotional, and cognitive skills, these developments are poorly understood in infants with visual impairments. Using behavioral analysis of video data and visual measurements with visual evoked potential and preferential looking techniques, this research will characterize these developments in relation to infants’ visual impairment levels. Results will inform early intervention practices to promote healthy development.

Infants’ ability to coordinate their attention toward a social partner and an object of mutual interest, or “joint engagement”, can be established through senses other than visual. However, it has been barely studied in infants with visual impairments, as research has almost exclusively used infants’ gaze to index attentional focus. This is troublesome since: a. There is evidence of a slower pattern of joint engagement development in some children with visual impairments, and b. Atypicalities in joint engagement are used to diagnose early autism. Without sufficient research to characterize what is normative in infants with visual impairments, we are at risk of misdiagnosing them as autistic, and failing to identify true abnormalities that warrant intervention.

Infants’ “attachment behavior”, that is, seeking proximity with the caregiver most likely to protect them, signals infants’ emotional bond with and mental representation of their attachment figures. Besides attachment’s survival value, the characteristics or “patterns” of the attachment developed by an infant are related to his/her social/emotional skills. However, partly due to attachment assessments having being designed for fully sighted children, there is a scarcity of studies with infants with visual impairments. Consequently, we lack knowledge about normative timing of attachment formation, and distribution of attachment patterns in this population.

Infants’ “mouthing”, one of their earliest means to learn about objects, decreases toward the end of their first year, and is eventually replaced by manual exploration. Compared to sighted peers, some visually impaired infants can show a prolonged and excessive use of mouthing to the detriment of manual exploration. This is particularly prominent when infants are emotionally deprived and their families lack developmental counseling. However, due to the scarcity of research on this topic, we do not know if in such cases mouthing has became a developmentally inappropriate behavior that interferes with the infant’s cognitive development, or if it rather continues to provide the infant with critical information about objects.

To advance these understudied areas, we will characterize joint engagement, attachment, and mouthing, based on video data analysis of visually impaired infants’ interactions with toys and social partners. Given the diverse developmental outcomes related to this population’s wide range of visual abilities, we will relate our behavioral findings to these infants’ levels of visual acuity and contrast sensitivity as measured through visual evoked potential and preferential looking techniques.

Results will inform early-intervention practices by aiding to differentiate between “atypical” behaviors that are indeed normative and instrumental for these infants, and those that signal developmental difficulties that warrant special intervention.


Team Members

Laura Walker, PhD
Executive Director Andrea Urqueta Alfaro, PhD
Postdoctoral Research Fellow

References & Publications

Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bakeman, R., & Adamson, L. B. (1984). Coordinating attention to people and objects in mother-infant and peer-infant interactions. Child Development, 55(4), 1278-1289.

Bigelow, A. (2003). The development of joint attention in blind infants. Development and  Psychopathology, 15, 259-275.

Dale, N. J., Tadić V., & Sonksen P. (2013). Social communicative variation in 1–3-year-olds with severe visual impairment. Child: Care Health Development, 40(2), 158-164.

Fraiberg, S. (1977). Insights from the blind. London: Souvenirs Press.

Pérez-Pereira, M., & Conti-Ramsden, G. (2005). Do blind children show autistic features? In L. Pring (Ed.), Autism and blindness. Research and reflections (pp. 99-127). London: Whurr.

Urqueta, A. (2015). Visual Impairments. In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Child Development (2nd Ed.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. (Accepted for publication.)

Urqueta, A. (2015). Joint engagement and attachment patterns in infants with visual impairments (Doctoral dissertation).

Urqueta, A. (2014). So called autistic-like behaviors in children with visual impairments: Is it the right label?. Terra Haptica, 4, 137-146.