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Fraiberg, S. Siegel, B.L. (1966). The Role of Sound in the Search Behavior of a Blind Infant. Psychoanal. St. Child, 21:327-357.

(1966). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 21:327-357

Normal and Pathological Development

The Role of Sound in the Search Behavior of a Blind Infant

Selma Fraiberg and Barry L. Siegel, M.D.


Our findings with regard to the role of sound in the search behavior of Robbie are representative of findings in the study of four infants blind from birth. In Robbie's case we regard the following points as significant for further study of ego formation in the child who is totally blind from birth.

1. In the absence of vision the coordination of prehension and hearing appears as a late achievement in the last quarter of the first year. In the sighted child visual search for the source of sound is demonstrated under two months of age. The sighted child makes a purposeful reach for an object "on sight" between five and six months of age. There are no equivalents in a blind baby's behavior toward a sound object. Orientation to the source of sound did not appear in Robbie's case until seven months. Intentional reach on sound cue alone did not appear until eleven months of age.

2. Search is initiated for the tactile object beginning at seven months in Robbie's case. On sound cue alone there is no behavior of search or reaching, until eleven months of age. Confronted with the sound of familiar toys the child behaves as if there were "nothing there," from which we can conclude that sound alone does not confer substantiality upon the object at earlier stages.

3. Search on sound cue alone is finally linked to the achievement of a stage in the development of the object concept. When Robbie at eleven months makes a sure reach for objects on sound cue alone, he also demonstrates that he attributes the beginnings of permanence to objects, that he can believe that the object is "out there," external to himself, has properties of its own.

These findings, we believe, are significant for the study of ego formation in the blind infant and promise some insights into the role of vision in facilitating and insuring the autonomous functions of the ego. Apart from the unique problems of the blind infant in establishing preobject and object relations (now speaking of the libidinal object), the adaptive problems of the first year are made infinitely complex by the difficulties in utilizing sound and tactile experiences in constructing an object world. We can demonstrate, in the case of Robbie and in other cases known to us, that sound is not an equivalent of vision in search, in reaching, in attaining an object. Where vision unites the sound and tactile qualities of objects in early experience, the tactile and auditory properties of the same object remain discrete experiences for the blind child until late in the first year. The experience of "something out there" must occur before a child can endow a thing with objective qualities. Vision insures that the thing presented as a picture, the thing grasped, and the thing heard will bring about identity of an object. Vision facilitates

the encounter of the hands with the thing "out there," and with practice produces the sure reach for the object that will later lead to the construction of an object concept. Vision enables the child to construct the invisible displacements of an object between the ages of eight and twenty months, and to believe in the permanence of objects independent of his perceptual experience.

But for the blind child "something out there" is a chance encounter for most of his first year. An accidental swipe of the hand may bring him in contact with an object. An object lost is an object swallowed up in a void. Even the human object, when attachment is demonstrable, is ephemeral for most of the first year, and remains at the disposal of need and magic far beyond the time that sighted children have achieved object constancy (in psychoanalytic terms). Robbie did not extend his arms in reach for a human object much earlier than he did for a treasured toy—a puzzle which remains unexplained in our studies of other babies at this stage of our investigation. And because tactile experience alone cannot serve the construction of an object concept, the blind child is dependent upon acoustical tracing and his own mobility to augment tactile experience in the discovery of the object world. But sound will not inform him until late in the first year. And mobility, ironically, is dependent upon the incentive of a sound stimulus for reaching. In all these ways the early ego development of the blind child is imperiled. We are beginning to understand the clinical picture of the deviant blind child who remains arrested at the level of mouth centeredness and nondifferentiation. The blind child who finds the adaptive solutions—and Robbie is one of them—must take a long and treacherous detour to the discovery of the object world.

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