Little Justin's Mom Speaks out About his Click and Cane

Hi everyone, My name is Tricia. My youngest son, Justin, totally blind, is five years old and attends a nearby kindergarten. Daniel Kish works with Justin to develop his echolocation skills, and Daniel mentioned the ongoing conversation [on the nfb-talks list] to me. I asked him if he would mind if I posted some of my thoughts and our own experiences.

Some background, first. We introduced Justin to a white cane when he was 18 months old, as he was already becoming very physically active. Now, at the age of five, using his cane is somewhat second nature to him; he is very used to it and processes the information he gains from it very effectively. Justin is a very active, outgoing fellow who loves socializing and sports of any kind. One day when he was three, he ran across a baseball field and took a header over a bench at top speed, and I decided to see if there was something more out there that we could teach our son.

I had heard about Daniel Kish on one of the chat groups I go on for families of children who are blind. What I read drew my interest. At that point I had a choice. I could discard the idea and move on, or I could delve deeper to learn more and see if what Daniel had to offer could help my son. I chose the latter. We had already noticed Justin using what we thought was echolocation to some degree, and we were interested in exploring it further. I emailed Daniel and he responded that very same night. That was close to three years ago, and Daniel has been working with Justin ever since.

I can tell you firsthand that the work he has done with Justin has had tremendous results. At the age of five, Justin continues to use his cane, but he is also incorporating the use of echolocation. Here are a few of the things that Justin can do so far using echolocation. Walls are easy for Justin to hear. He has moved on to identify parked cars, store displays, other solid objects like newspaper boxes, bushes, and more - all with the click of his tongue.

I don't know if he can tell the difference between these objects yet, but he can tell that they are there. For example, if I ask Justin to go and find a parked car or other solid object that doesn't make noise, he will click his tongue, and where he thinks he hears one, he will set off in that direction. As he nears it, he will actually pick up speed and become more confident, because he can hear it better.

He can then stop short of it, within arms length, once he reaches it. The delight on his face when I tell him to reach out and see if he has found and he discovers he has is unparalleled.

Another example, the other day my husband asked Justin to tell him when the type of fence changed along the street by using echolocation. Clicking his tongue, Justin could tell him when the fence changed from a brick to a wrought iron barred fence, because he could hear it. Keep in mind that this is a little boy who is only five years old and is totally blind.

As I mentioned, we had seen Justin using echolocation on his own as a toddler. And we could have left it at that. I'm not sure how much Justin knew what he was doing, or how much further he would have went with it. I know that I have heard a lot of blind adults say that they use echolocation to some degree, to varying extents. But in Justin's case, with structured training his potential in this area is being drawn out and he is learning to use echolocation more effectively than he would have otherwise.

Echolocation is a tool, just as canes and guide dogs are tools. Each person chooses which of these they are more comfortable with, which of these they deem to be most effective, and how much weighting they want to put in each of these areas. We, like any parents, want the best for our son. We want him to be as independent and free as he can be. To give him that, we want him to have access to all the options, so that he knows what is possible and can make his own choices. Echolocation training is most definitely helping to accomplish that goal.

I will emphasize that Justin is learning many of the same O&M skills that are taught in the mainstream O&M program, and he has a local instructor that works with him, too, because Daniel lives so far away. But in addition to those skills, he is learning how to use echolocation.

10 years ago it was unheard of to put a cane in the hand of a toddler. Our toddler is one little boy who has benefited hugely from being introduced to one at such a young age. How many people ten years ago, and even now for that matter, would have told me not to give my son a cane? Is the same thing true to some extent of echolocation? Or are we open-minded enough to explore the idea deeply enough to see if, just maybe, this is a relatively untapped area with tremendous potential? As adults, you have your choices to make. As a parent, I strive to give my child access to all of the resources I can to help him become who he wants to be. This is one such resource. Justin is only five. Our family relies on the support of adults like yourself who have been there, done that, because society already has so many misconceptions. Please be open-minded to the potential of this idea.

A couple of random comments from some of the thoughts I have heard expressed on this topic. Let me preface my thoughts by saying that probably my greatest strength with my son is my ability to teach him social skills. I have a very strong interest in this area, and it shows in who Justin is becoming. He is extremely well spoken with a vocabulary well beyond his years, very outgoing, confident, and well-liked by his friends and classmates.

I thought back to the times we have been with Daniel, and I think I have only very rarely seen him without his cane. I could probably count the times on one hand. On the contrary, he advocates the use of the cane.

Also, on the topic of using a tongue click, I can again tell you from firsthand experience that it is hardly noticeable. In fact, unless you were listening specifically for it, I don't know that you would notice it. OK, well if you are blind you almost surely would, but I am commenting as a sighted person. It is hardly noticeable at all.

I also think the tongue click in no way resembles a blindism or mannerism. From the age of 18 months to 3 years, Justin was really big on eye pressing. The day he got his prosthetic scleral shells he stopped pressing on his eyes, for whatever reason. Today Justin does not exhibit any mannerisms but I am aware of what they are and have been around other people who do. As I mentioned, the tongue click is hardly noticeable, but here is something positive that it does do. It keeps the head up nicely, because when you click to scan your environment you lift your head up instead of hanging it down.

While we are on this topic, what does draw people's attention to my son is his cane, more than anything else. Since he first started using it at 18 months, people tend to watch us wherever we go. As someone said, it identifies him as blind, and that draws people's interest. His cane by far draws more attention than a tongue click ever would. It is what it is, and that is the reality of it from our own experience. If you stayed awake this far, I am impressed, thanks for listening and letting me be involved in the discussion.