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Eye-Pressing in Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired, And an Invitation to a Needs-Assessment Survey

Young blind girl smiling with hands together

Does your child who is blind or visually impaired engage in prolonged eye-pressing? Perhaps you’ve noticed your child aggressively rubbing or poking their eyes with their fingers, knuckles, or fists, and you are concerned or even disturbed. You may wonder why it’s occurring, whether it’s acceptable, and how to address it. 

If this describes you, please know you are not alone!  

Let’s take a look at  

  • why this behavior can be common in individuals who are blind or visually impaired  
  • the physical repercussions of eye pressing 
  • how to address the issue, and  
  • a valuable needs-assessment survey on the topic.  

Why EyePressing? 

It’s believed eye-pressing in children who are blind or visually impaired is due in part to the brain receiving inadequate visual input. Interestingly, as noted in Developmental Medicine and Children’s Neurology’s article: Eye Pressing by Visually Impaired Children, blind children with non-functioning optic nerves (the pathways for messages between the eyes and brain) do not engage in habitual eye pressing. This seems to suggest that the purpose of eye pressing is at least in part to stimulate the brain.  

Some even describe eye-pressing as reflexive in nature. Prolonged or aggressive eye-rubbing and/or pressing may be the body’s almost automatic response to satiate the ocular cortex’s need for stimulation, much like scratching is an almost automatic response to an itch. This isn’t to say one cannot control eye-pressing. If you had chicken pox as a child, you likely remember a strong desire to scratch, though you were probably told to refrain in order to prevent scarring.  

Eye pressing can also be therapeutic in nature. It makes sense, doesn’t it—if one is receiving little to no visual information and pressing on the eyes produces interesting visual feedback, the behavior may leave one feeling satisfied, alert, or even soothed. 

Due to the possible reflexive and behavioral influences on eye-pressing, it’s easy to see why it can become habitual, much like biting nails or twisting hair. And like biting nails or twisting hair, the behavior can increase in frequency and/or intensity when tired, stressed, nervous, or bored.  

So, is it really so bad? 

Physical Repercussions 

In addition to possible social effects, habitual eye-pressing and/or poking can be dangerous to the eyes.  

It’s difficult to assess the extent of injury on the structure of the eyes, but it has been proven to cause 

  • retinal detachment 
  • scratching and thinning of the cornea 
  • infections 
  • receding of the eye socket, and 
  • further impaired vision. 

So, how should you help your child curb this habit? 

Addressing the Issue 

As a teacher for students with visual impairments (TVI), I recommend working with your child (if age appropriate) to come up with a plan for refocusing their attention when they are eye-pressing. The alternate behavior should be socially appropriate and not cause harm; it may entail exploring a toy, squeezing a stress ball, or playing with a fidget cube. 

When your child is eye-pressing, gently help them recognize it and encourage the alternate behavior. “Gently” is critical. Individuals should not be shamed; feeling shame will likely harm your child’s self-image and cause them to simply continue the behavior in private.  

Given patience and persistence with redirection, many individuals with visual impairments have succeeded in reducing or abstaining from eye pressing, which, as you can imagine, is especially difficult because it can be engaged in unknowingly. 

This brings me to the survey. [Stay with me! This is exciting!] 

A Needs-Assessment Survey 

The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) would like to know if there is a need for intervention technology to help curb the habit of eye pressing in children and adults who are blind or visually impaired. 

Parents and teachers of children who are blind or visually impaired, please consider helping APH understand eye pressing and its impact by participating in a needs-assessment survey by May 31, 2021. 

If a need is determined, APH would consider partnering with a company who makes wearable technology (nothing intimidating, we’re talking a bracelet or similar device) that would alert the wearer to the habitual movement that leads to eye pressing. Such technology would mean a child could be gently prompted to refocus their attention on an alternate behavior, and a motivated individual of any age could choose to be alerted to unconscious eye-pressing without needing the assistance of a sighted individual.  

If you have an opinion on the need for such a device, please consider completing the survey, and don’t hesitate to contact the APH ConnectCenter to share your story, thoughts, or concerns regarding eye pressing.