Following the Gaze

Question: If our only job is to teach language from the seeing-hearing person’s perspective, whose job is it to teach language from the deafblind person’s perspective?

Matt, who is a good friend and colleague, had just become a father. His baby boy was home safe and healthy. Most mornings he would come to work full of excitement and wonder, telling us how amazing it was to have this new little human being present in he and his wife’s world. During this time we were also starting to explore and learn more about human interaction; especially as it might apply to a person who is congenitally deafblind.

One morning Matt told us about an interaction he had with his new son, Weston. He reflected on how he held baby Weston in his arms and the connection he felt as they locked their gaze, looking into each other’s eyes, with skin-to-skin contact.

Western shirt with pearl buttons.
Western shirt with pearl buttons

Matt is a very fashion-conscious dresser and on this day he happened to be wearing one of his fancy western-style shirts with shiny, pearl buttons on it. He noticed Weston’s gaze shift to one of the buttons. Naturally, Matt followed Weston’s gaze and then said out loud, “You’re looking at my button!” He recalled how he then pointed and repeated the word “button”, as they both admired the shiny round object on his dad’s chest. They then returned to gazing into each other’s eyes. Weston smiled, then Matt smiled…

Matt and I have told this story to many audiences around the USA, as we’ve shared our thoughts on deafblind communication. We are quick to point out that this very simple and innocuous interaction happened naturally and easily; it’s something that we wouldn’t think twice about. What’s the big deal then?

Harmonious Interactions

The interaction that I have described with Matt and Weston could be thought of as a “Harmonious Interaction”. Harmonious interactions are essential for all human beings, including people who are deafblind. They form the foundation of our well-being and quality of life. As we think back to Matt, Weston, and the shiny pearl buttons, we would expect that there was a shared experience. As Matt and Weston returned each other’s gaze and smile, we might also assume that there were feelings of security and connection being shared.  Attachments were being made.  Children need these experiences to feel safe and gain confidence to try new things and explore the world. Making eye contact, reading facial expressions, listening and responding to voices are important ways that children with typical hearing and vision interact with caregivers. For children who are deafblind, these senses are greatly decreased or absent. As a result, naturally occurring opportunities to interact with others may be limited. Many children also have additional disabilities or health problems that create further barriers to interactions (NCDB, Harmonious Interactions, no. 1, 2007). 

If we think about this from the perspective of a baby who comes into the world without intact vision and hearing, what might their experience of his dad’s buttons be? Would baby share the moment’s gaze with dad? Would there be mutual attention to his dad’s shiny button? Would there be a natural, back-and-forth flow to the conversation?

Harmonious interaction is essential for healthy brain development. On a biological level, chemicals and hormones, like oxytocin and serotonin, are released in our brain, helping to promote feelings of mutual well-being and connection.

Because of our human need to communicate feelings and experiences, formal language is created as part of this natural process. We in turn start to develop a sense of self, an inner dialogue, and a way to better process and understand the world around us.