Researchers find improved communication skills in infants of blind parents

10 April 2013

Sighted babies of blind parents show superior visual attention and memory skills in a study published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Scientists at Birkbeck College, University of London, have found that the unusual face-to-face communication that sighted babies have with their blind parents may have a positive effect on the development of their social communication skills.

Dr Atsushi Senju and his colleagues followed the development of five such babies and found that while they had near typical face-to-face communication skills with sighted adults, they rapidly learned to use different modes of communication with their blind parents. Surprisingly, the babies showed superior visual attention and memory skills as compared to controls.

Infants were assessed on three separate occasions up to the age of 27 months. Face scanning and gaze following were assessed using eye tracking. In addition, the researchers measured any autistic-like behaviours and tested cognitive, motor and linguistic development. These data were compared with those obtained from a larger group of sighted infants of sighted parents.

Infants with blind parents did not show an overall decrease in eye contact or gaze following when they observed sighted adults, nor did they show any autistic-like behaviours. However, they directed their own eye gaze somewhat less frequently towards their blind mothers. The researchers thus concluded that being reared with significantly reduced experience of eye contact does not prevent sighted infants from developing typical gaze behaviour and other social-communication skills.

Sighted infants of blind parents in fact showed improved performance in visual memory and attention at younger ages. The researchers speculate that the need to switch between different modes of communication with different adults may actually enhance other skills during development.