A Mobility Lesson with Daniel Kish

Ronan and Daniel walk along a path in the school garden

Ronan and Daniel walk along a path in the school garden

If you haven’t heard of Daniel Kish, then watch his TED talk. He is most famous for his use of Flash Sonar. This is a form of echolocation, the navigation mechanism of bats, in which the reflection of sound waves is used to navigate. Alongside Daniel’s spectacular skills in this area, he also advocates for an expectation of complete independent mobility in blind children. While I had thought my expectations were high, I realised that they could go a lot higher.

Ronan had the luck to spend a day with Daniel when he was visiting a group of children in Cambridgeshire in April. This was an inspirational day for both Ronan, his parents (us), and his teachers. Ronan romped around his kindergarten garden with Daniel in tow. A little boy with a cane, followed by a full grown man with a cane. Juxtaposed next to each other with the same cane, you could see the potential of this small child. We all shifted our view that day. It was no longer left to the imagination of what Ronan might become. Here it was in front of us.

But, let me get to the details of what we learned. While Daniel is famous for echolocation, we focused first on Ronan’s cane skills. Ronan had just taken to his cane (blog), but had not started to use it at school. Daniel encouraged Ronan to head off across the school garden to see what he could find with his cane. He prompted Ronan to explore terrain and objects with his cane. We watched Daniel’s cane dart here and there as he quickly checked what was around. While Ronan’s three year old hands could not manage with quite the same grace, Ronan suddenly understood that the cane was an extension of his hand.

Daniel helped Ronan use his cane to explore a tree, reaching far beyond what his hands alone could “see”. The other children talked about Inspector Gadget for days. Contrary to what we’d learned before, Daniel did not insist that Ronan keep his cane on the ground. He encouraged Ronan to explore all sides of an object with it – gently of course. He also did not stop Ronan from tapping his cane, which Ronan does incessantly. Daniel suggested that Ronan may be trying to get an echo from his cane. Indeed, the suggestion was to not try to “teach” Ronan any technique, but continually draw from him what his cane could tell him. Any out of control canes were responded to with “What is your cane telling you?”

Ronan’s mobility has been transformed in the last month. He now heads off across the garden on his own. He often zig-zags around, but he almost always finds what he wants if we give him enough “hands-off” time to get somewhere. With this new mobility, came a dramatic change in his ability to map space. Previously everything seemed disconnected, but now Ronan is starting to systematically go from one thing to another. It would not surprise me if this mapping of space is also responsible for Ronan’s budding language, which has been seriously delayed until now.

We also learned a bit about echolocation. While Ronan is unable to click, as he is barely talking, Daniel provided Ronan with a clicker (used for dog training). He taught us how to listen for large objects and corners, and then use this information to work out where everything else is. He discouraged Ronan from trailing and “shorelining”, but instead encouraged him to move through open space using what he hears to orient himself. For example, in our playground, he encouraged Ronan to listen for the tree line on one side and a low fence on the other. These sounds are quite distinct, meaning that Ronan can always determine his orientation from these cues.

The use of echolocation by Ronan is not yet obvious, but we as parents have shifted how we talk about navigation. We continually ask Ronan to stop and listen, drawing his attention to aspects of the environment that we want him to attend to. We’ve also stopped directing him (e.g. go left, now right). We now ask him “Where is the car?” If he does not move towards it, we then tell him, “The car is on your left, can you find it with your cane.” This shift in language puts Ronan in the driving seat, rather than sitting back and letting the human sat nav do the work.

Daniel left us with a reminder that we need to continue to match stride with Ronan’s growth – something hard given how much TLC Ronan needed as a baby. As he said — when we shift our perspective from “what a cute little thing toddling along” to “what a strapping young lad”, the shift in attitude makes an immediate and striking difference in how the child regards himself. Self-concept is the key to self-efficacy, even in the youngest and smallest.

At our first mobility appointment, we were told that “it was very sad to see such a small child with a cane.” We were shocked. We feel very lucky to know that Daniel is advocating a very different future for our child.

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