Watching to see where their parents look, or “following their eye gaze,” is one way babies begin to learn about their environment. By relying on their parents’ visual cues, infants learn all kinds of information about emotions, safety, socialization, and even early language development. New research suggests that when a child cannot hear, their ability to understand their parents’ visual cues is actually even stronger.
A study done at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) was recently published in the journal Developmental Science. Researchers at I-LABS studied Deaf children of Deaf parents who primarily used American Sign Language (ASL) for communication. Jenny Singleton, a linguistics professor at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of the study, states, “Informal observations of Deaf infants interacting with their Deaf parents have suggested that these infants possess keen control over their eye-gaze behavior.” They compared their findings with those of hearing children of the same age (ranging from 7 to 20 months) and gender.
In the experiment, babies sat on a parent’s lap facing a researcher. The researcher would silently look at one of two objects on either side of each baby, and record whether or not the child looked at the object, too. Following eye gaze is one way babies share attention with caregivers, which allows them to learn more about the objects and actions around them. Visually checking back with the adult by looking at them again after seeing the object is considered an advanced behavior, and tells them even more about what they saw based on how the adult reacts and behaves.
What did all these babies have in common? They all had experience with language at home. However, the hearing infants experienced verbal speech, whereas the Deaf babies with Deaf parents experienced speech visually, through the use of ASL.
The results were dramatic
Scores from the study illustrate that Deaf infants are almost two times more likely than hearing infants to follow an adult’s gaze accurately. They also had significantly higher checking-back scores. Since these children rely heavily on watching their parents communicate through sign language in order to understand the world, they are more attuned to looking to their parents for information, looking out into their environment and then looking back to their parents for confirmation of what they are discerning. These skills are the basis of effective non-verbal communication — skills that appear to be more fully developed in Deaf infants due to the environment in which they’re raised.
This study is a great example of how we adapt to our environment and find ways to communicate despite, and because of, our differences. Perhaps Andrew Meltzoff, co-author of the study and co-director of I-LABS, summarized it best. “Deaf infants, like hearing infants, strive to communicate with others. They are raised with a visual language and become exquisitely attuned to the visual signals from adults.”
Meltzoff concluded his thoughts with this excellent reminder: “The human mind and brain flexibly adapt to achieve our fundamental birthright — connections to others.”