Development of Communication

From the beginning of my career, I’ve been interested in ways children with deafblindness can be taught to communicate with their environment. This was one of the major reasons why, in 1963, I went to the Perkins School for the Blind, in Watertown, Massachusetts (USA). This school has a long history of teaching deafblind children, including Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller.



Perkins in the winter


Perkins, Training class Deafblind Education 1963-1964


Training class Deafblind Education 1963-1964  - Click on a picture to enlarge it -

I was given opportunities to participate in the Perkins/Boston University Teacher Training Program, and to observe deafblind children in their classrooms.

At that time, a communication method called TADOMA was used at Perkins (see for more information: The Case of Gerda: Road to Symbolization). In this method, the deafblind child put his/her thumb on the speaker’s mouth, and his/her index and middle finger under the speaker’s chin. The speaker would then say, for example, "jump" and the child was encouraged to jump. After endless repetition, some children learned to understand a few of these commands.

This method of teaching did not contribute to my idea that communication is an exchange of ideas, with the intention of making thoughts clear to another person. For this exchange (conversation) to be successful, a vehicle (such as a word or sign) is needed to carry the meaning that both conversational partners share. This vehicle not only represents a specific object or situation, but also represents the abstract idea of an object or situation. For example, the word "ball" refers to the general idea of "ball-ness" beyond a concrete, specific object. Then we are speaking about a symbol.

Book of Heinz Werner and Bernard KaplanI was very intrigued by the topic, "signal (the commands) – symbol." I found very important information about this in the work of Heinz Werner and Bernhard Kaplan. Their book, Symbol Formation (1963 New York: John Wiley & Sons), discusses all of the minute developmental steps a typical child takes, in order to reach a level of symbolization. This is the level where the child plays with words and understands that they can have different meanings. This process takes place through conversation with the child, where the conversational partners (child and adult) try together to understand what is on each other’s mind. Here’s an example. The adult says, "That is pony." The child says, "No, that is a horse." The adult says, "Yes, it is a small horse. It is called a pony."

At the initial stages of development, a deafblind child has neither words nor signs. Still, it is possible to get into conversation with this child, by acting together or touching an object together. In this situation, you share the child’s experiences through body language. You approve, by nodding with your whole body, or you disapprove by backing off. This approach is well described by Linda Hagood and Kate Moss, who observed an interaction between me and Tabor, a deafblind child. For more information, click here:

The creation of a world of togetherness for children with deafblindness was first described in my article, "The first steps of the deaf-blind child toward language" van Dijk, J. (1966), published in The International Journal for the Education of the Blind, XV, 3, 112-114.

During the same period, I published an article about the deafblind educator’s biggest problem: how to get into conversation with a child. I suggested that by moving and acting with the child (e.g. in the gymnasium), the teacher can observe the child’s intentions. A happy child will make this clear by indicating that he/she wants to continue the activity. If the child indicates that he/she wants to stop, the teacher will notice. The teacher can use body language to affirm understanding of the child’s message. This article is called "The path to SymbolismMotor Development in the Education of Deaf-Blind Children".

Werner & Kaplan’s ideas on symbolic development can be recognized in both of these articles, and particularly in my publication, The non-verbal deaf-blind and his world: His outgrowth toward the world of symbols. van Dijk, J. (1967). Annual Report Instituut Voor Doven, 1964–1967. In this publication, the use of natural gestures is emphasized. It is explained that by interrupting a child’s chain of movements, the child might anticipate the next action, and indicate this in “one way or another,” using movement, vocalisation, eye gaze (if the child has residual vision), etc. Signals like these should be accepted as vehicles for communication. At first, signals are almost part of the situation (e.g. a child who likes to roll on a ball on his belly taps on his belly to ask that the activity be continued). As this tapping movement is used frequently, it becomes more and more schematized and might evolve to a single finger movement. It has become a sign. There is now distance between the actual concrete situation in which the movement was embedded, and a gesture, the origin of which is known only by the people who witnessed the "distancing process."

Dr. Susan Bruce explains the idea of distancing as follows. “Distancing is a concept arising from the work of developmental psychologists Heinz Werner and Bernard Kaplan to describe the process of establishing a subject's individuality and identity as an essential phase in coming to terms with symbols, referential language and eventually full cognition and linguistic communication.”

Dr. Bruce wrote further:

"Werner and Kaplan's work was later expanded and edified into more refined therapeutic practice by the pioneer in deaf-blind patient therapy, Dr. Jan van Dijk, and later refined by the work of Dr. Susan Bruce. Primarily of use in working with deaf-blind persons distancing gradually leads the subject through a course of physical interactions which encourage a range of responses connected to the act.

At first, responses may be simple repetitions of pleasurable acts, but eventually events that take place in the present tense are replaced in the subject's mind with more complicated cognitive concepts, such as desires, requests or other expressions which reflect symbolic cognition and understanding of past events.

As the subject progresses through these stages, he is eventually able to move from communicating his simple desires (as in early childhood) to more complicated treatment of symbols in communication. Once the communication barrier is removed, more conventional educational methodologies can be used.”


  • Werner, H., & Kaplan, B. (1964). Symbol formation: An organismic-developmental approach to language and expression of thought. London: John Wiley & Sons.
  • van Dijk, J. (1967). The non-verbal deaf-blind and his world: His outgrowth toward the world of symbols: Proceedings of the Jaasrverslag Instituut Voor Doven, 1964–1967.
  • Bruce, Susan M. (2005) The Application of Werner and Kaplan's Concept of “Distancing” to Children Who Are Deaf-Blind. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. August 20. Retrieved from Wikipedia.

See also Dr. Bruce's article:  "The path to Symbolism".

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