When I first discovered the Roman Word Bubbling app in early 2020, I quickly made a set of bubbled and laminated family names. I used velcro to attach them to a black foam board, sat my son in front of the board, and began working to teach him “Mommy,” “Mama,” “Mason,” “Logan,” and “Makenna.” In just five minutes, Mason could point to each bubbled word and say the correct name. I was flabbergasted. This fantastic boy! Could it really be so simple?

Mason in hammock

Instinctively, I removed the names from the board, and reattached them each in a different spot. Mason turned away from the board and then looked back to study it in his periphery. He scanned it two or three times, and then as if the floor had given way beneath him, he screamed. He kept screaming as he angrily kicked the foam board, kept screaming as he ripped all the names from the board and threw them, and kept screaming as he slapped and kicked me.

What a most spectacular failure! I walked away from that first word bubbling exercise with a broken heart, but also with strengthened resolve to help my child. In those few moments, I gained an extraordinarily deeper understanding of Mason’s mind, and especially, his memory. Using my verbal cues, and perhaps some bit of visual information supported by word bubbling, Mason was able to rapidly memorize the location of each name. He pointed to the names and correctly recited them in order, but he was not really using his vision to give those answers. When I rearranged the names and he realized that I had changed the order, he knew I had stolen his ability to give the correct answer. He wept in my lap, begging me to put the words back in the “right” order.

I have learned, finally, to hold my tongue, and to be patient; I encourage Mason to explore visually first, and then speak in a way that supports, rather than supersedes, his vision. We have begun to make huge academic strides while homeschooling, with the help of Mason’s TVI. I’ve learned that Mason is most successful when our approach is both multi-sensory and multi-modal, and when we prioritize meaningful experiences.

Meaningfulness in Multi-Sensory Learning

Most of us have heard of the “multi-sensory” approach before, but until I delved further into how our senses are linked to our memories, I didn't really understand how I should involve all of Mason’s senses in working toward academic goals. More importantly, I didn’t understand why I should. Did you know that our sense of smell, or the olfactory system, is strongly linked to memory and emotion? In fact, it may be our most powerful memory-making sense. Consider this “Smell-Based Memory Training” study published in the Oxford Academic in September of 2020:

“Our results indicate that the olfactory system is highly responsive to training, and we speculate that the sense of smell may facilitate transfer of learning to other sensory domains,” (Olofsson et al).

Smell may help support visual learning! After reading this particular study, I considered rushing out to purchase every scented tool I could find, but the words of so many CVI parents and experts echoed in my ears: it must be meaningful. A cherry scented marker wouldn’t magically teach my son the letter C.

Instead, I have been working to purposefully recognize the way that we already experience scents, sounds, taste and touch in our daily lives. In the past, I have felt pressured to create a rich, multi-sensory learning environment that is full of LED lights, shaving cream, rice bins, crash pads, and other items that are sometimes expensive, or just unrelated to what Mason is studying. Please don’t read this as a dig at those sensory tools; we’ve had loads of fun with shaving cream, and Mason’s brother relies heavily on crash pads, scooters, and weighted objects for sensory regulation. What I have learned, however, is that when I prioritize meaningful experiences, the opportunities for multi-sensory learning present themselves organically. The CVI principles of salient features and comparative language weigh heavily here. If I involve Mason in baking cookies, he feels that the stiff dough resists being stirred. He hears the whir of the mixer, and he feels its motor vibrate in his hands. I specifically, but briefly, point out each of these sensations. He has tasted a bit of pure baking soda! We count, and we measure. My olfactory system has long been trained to smell when cookies are done. I ask Mason, “Can you smell them yet?” When the cookies are cooled, our reward is (of course) to eat one… or several.

“You took one big bite! What does the cookie look like now?”

In this moment, I was hoping Mason would say the cookie looked like the letter C. Instead, he said it looked like a moon, and he was right. It looked much more like a crescent moon than it did like the letter C. Still, baking cookies did work to support learning letters, because now we have even more comparative language to use when talking about the letter C. The letter C looks a lot like a crescent moon, and Mason showed me that this is an image he recognizes and remembers. Phonetically, we can support the hard C sound with both “cookie” and “crescent,” and we can visually examine and verbally compare the bitten cookie, a picture of a crescent moon, and the letter C. 

In fairness, I’ve covered all of these things when baking with Mason, but never all at one time. His level of engagement and his tolerance for challenging tasks both vary, of course. Committing to meaningful experiences means we have to be willing to fail often, to be left standing with an unbaked batch of cookies and a crying child who needs love, attention, and total quiet. Meaningful experiences are also messy. Messiness is a source of distress for me, and it is a true challenge each time I choose to embrace flour on the floor, bare feet in a mud puddle, and finger paint up to our elbows.

I’ve also learned that we can pair academics with sensory experiences that Mason already enjoys, and seeks out. For him, it’s water, Play Doh, and swinging. Mason is calm but engaged when he’s swinging. Sometimes I bring along a non-preferred book, and I read to him while he’s swinging. Recently, it’s been “Dr. Seuss’ ABCs.” He doesn’t need to use his vision at all for this, since the emphasis is on listening and increasing phonological awareness. It’s a literal juggling act to read a book aloud while pushing a kid on a swing, but it’s a heck of a lot easier than fighting with my kid over phonics worksheets.

Leaving Space for Self-Advocacy 

I recognize that it is difficult to find the balance between nudging your child toward an experience, and knowing when to encourage self-advocacy by respecting their refusal. Mason is currently attending an enrichment camp once a week for three hours. It is a farm-based camp, and he and his small group of peers spend their afternoons climbing trees, gardening, chasing chickens, caring for bunnies, playing in the mud, exploring the woods and a natural elements playground, and splashing in a creek. He has buckets of fun each week, thanks in part to the extra support this inclusive camp provides. And yet, camp is still hard. Each week, before camp, Mason protests and insists he isn’t going to camp that day. Each week, I affirm that attending camp is his choice, but that we will drive there, and he can make the decision when we arrive. Each week, he tentatively, but willingly, goes to camp. He comes home absolutely exhausted, but happy. For us, camp is worth the nudge.

Parents, you’re already doing a fantastic job of loving and teaching your child. You’re already making vivid memories for your little one to learn from. The work load of parenting and teaching a child with CVI is often heavy; recognize your own efforts, and let yourself have a bit more joy.

So, ask yourself: what sensory experiences bring you joy? Can you share those with your child? For example, Mason finds it difficult to understand seasons, and so I am working on pointing out the seasonal sensory experiences that I personally love. On a crisp winter morning, we stood in our driveway, and I explained to Mason the smell of imminent snow. Now, in the spring, we are focused on the feeling of squishy mud or feathery plant roots, the sweet smell of flower blossoms, the sounds of rain and the nightly chorus of peepers. Perhaps this seems obvious. For me, it wasn’t. I needed to remind myself that learning is not incidental for kids with CVI. It must be explicit, and purposeful. Once I decided to share my own sensory delights, the multi-sensory learning opportunities became boundless.

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