Language skills for toddlers with vision loss

Did you know that toddlers and children with vision loss are more likely to have delayed language skills?

Babies born with vision impairment, like VisAbility client Mateo, have trouble taking in their environment. As a result, they lack visual references and verbal interaction. Studies show they have a far more limited awareness of words and their meanings compared to their fully sighted peers.

Helena and Mateo sit on a mat next to a tub of play-dough towers
Mateo has been building his language skills with Speech Pathologist Helena

A baby or toddler with vision impairment requires more input, such as a combination of touch and sound, to learn about their environment. They find it difficult to recognise specific facial features and expressions to understand the world around them. We often underestimate the  recognise facial expressions to understand the world around them. We often underestimate the ways we communicate. It’s not just language – it’s also gestures, eye contact and much more.

Mateo's Mother Elena sits on the floor with Mateo and Speech Pathologist elena
Mateo receives speech pathology sessions at home

The parents of two-and-a-half-year-old Mateo have noticed a big improvement in his language skills through weekly speech pathology sessions in his own home with VisAbility Speech Therapist Helena.

Mateo was born with septo-optic dysplasia (link opens in new window) – a rare condition affecting around 1 in every 10,000 births. In children with septo-optic dysplasia, the optic nerves are abnormally small, resulting in vision problems in one or both eyes.

Speech and language skill support for toddlers with vision loss

Every toddler or child needs to understand a word before they communicate it. Helena has been working with Mateo to encourage greater language use. Her techniques include: 

  • Pointing to everyday objects and encouraging repetition.
  • Promoting child-led play, asking them what they want to do.
  • Modelling. It’s an approach where a child learns through demonstration. For example, when a child is reaching for a ball, talk about the child picking up the ball.
  • Book sharing. Discussing the storyline and talking about the pictures.
  • Introducing words such as ‘first,’ ‘then,’ and ‘finally,’ so the child knows what happens next.
  • Incorporating a higher level of facial expressions and using body language and gestures to explain things.

Play dough – initiating action words

How does Helena work with Mateo? We’ve been shadowing a speech pathology session to find out. A lot of the principles are based on the Hanen Strategy (link opens in new window) and the ‘It Takes Two to Talk program’.

Mateo is familiar with Helena, so looks forward to her weekly visits. He always greets her with a smile. Helena brings toys, books and games to encourage language development.

During a recent therapy session, Mateo asked Helena if she could get out the play dough.

Helena and Mateo sit on the floor. They are interacting with each other and Mateo is holding a star shaped cutter.
Helena and Mateo discuss shapes and colours with the play-dough

“Mateo loves the play dough. It’s a great opportunity to incorporate action words like rolling, squeezing and pushing. I can talk about the cutters and shapes. Plus, we talk about the different colours.”

Helena explains how she encourages the repetition of words in her interaction with Mateo.

“For example, Mateo chose a star as a cutter. It was a great way to introduce a song ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’.”

Helena – VisAbility Speech Pathologist

Reading – observing and discussing objects

Next, Mateo chooses a book to read from a selection provided by Helena.

“I choose books with lots of visual elements to encourage active engagement. This book features different animals, so we speak about what types are in the book and what noise they make,” explains Helena.

Helena sits with Mateo and his mum with a large book.
Reading together is a great way to learn new words

“Mateo loves his books. He loves to read them several times over. The repetition is great because he starts to memorise them,” adds Elena, his mother.

Repetition with Twister

The game Twister has been around for years, but Helena introduces an adaption or twist to the Twister game. 

Mateo is leaning over a Twister mat and placing his hand on a blue circle following instruction from Speech Pathologist Helena
A take on ‘Twister’ encourages language skills

Instead of a spinner that determines where the player has to put their hand or foot, Helena issues instructions with the words Simon Says.

“I might say Mateo put your right hand on the green circle or your left foot on the yellow circle. He follows the instructions. We then repeat them and talk about what we’re doing. It’s also a great way to learn about body parts and colours.” 

Encouraging language at home

Mateo has been receiving speech pathology support since he was a baby. Sometimes Helena works alongside VisAbility Physiotherapist Kayla in joint sessions.

Kayla aims to improve Mateo’s balance and to work on his gross and fine motor skills through basic tasks, such as reaching and marching. Helena will issue instructions giving verbal prompts such as ‘reach the ball.’

Elena says the sessions have helped her to better understand techniques for her to try at home. She talks to Mateo as much as possible, always makes a point of describing what they’re doing together and encourages the repetition of words.

“I want to encourage dialogue with my son, so we talk a lot. If he needs help with anything, I’ll say ‘use your words’.  Mateo will often say ‘help please!’ Just two words to indicate he needs my input.”

Elena – Mateo’s mother

How to get support

Please complete the form below to make an initial enquiry about the low vision services and support we can provide. Our Client Experience Team will contact you to discuss your individual needs both now and into the future.

There are a number of low vision support groups within Perth and across the state.

If you are a provider and wish to refer a client, please use our low vision medical certificate (online referral form) to make your referral.

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