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Touch, Matter and the Gaze: the Role of Joint Attention

02 September 2016

Touch, Matter and the Gaze: the role of joint attention for children with visual impairments and added disabilities.

Joint attention is crucial for understanding the particular dynamics in art therapy with children who are congenitally blind, partially sighted and might have added disabilities.

BAAT are delighted to welcome Uwe Herrmann, with much expertise in this area, to facilitate a new course for qualified Art Therapists and Art Therapy Trainees called Touch, Matter and the Gaze: the Role of Joint Attention 

Uwe tells us more about his work in this area...

We asked Uwe if he thinks it is equally important for children with no visual impairment, to have some kind of tactile element between themselves and the Art Therapist?

Uwe responded as follows...

"I think it is frightfully important and I think probably the tactile realm isn't stressed enough for children who can see. That said, in my view it doesn't have the same relevance as it does for somebody who is born blind.

Now that is to do with the fact that for children who are sighted, vision is able to unite and put in place all other sensory persons. In a way for us who are sighted, vision is the royal sense and in fact vision will help to repress anything else we sense. Probably 70-80% of what we perceive and what stays in our mind is visual.

The blind person does not have this.

Let's think about it like this, a sighted person may be able to look away from something, to divert attention from something we don't like or that we don't want, or divert attention away from some feelings, something inside that we don't want to focus on. What the sighted person does is focus on something on the outside and immediately repression sets in and we stop thinking about it, we might, when we have internal images in our internal realm, blink or cut and suddenly our gaze is focused somewhere else. The blind child cannot do this.

For the blind child the tactile sense is of prime importance. We might argue, 'Is the auditory not equally important (as the tactile)?' This might be interesting to look into or even research. But I think the tactile element is certainly not of the same importance to the sighted child and to the blind child.

Going back to your question, Do we focus/stress the tactile element enough with sighted children, I would say no we do not. One of the German words for understanding is berühren, which means, to touch upon. The message here that language holds is that to really understand something you may want to touch it and not only look at it.

I had a fascinating tour around an art gallery a couple of years back with a group of blind people, African art, masks, seats carvings etc.

One of the group members asked the curator who took us around the exhibition asked if he was allowed to touch this particular piece. he asked the curator, what is this chair made of, what is the seat made of? The curator said it was wood, it looked like ebony. This guy wasn't satisfied with this answer, so he bent down, sniffed the chair, reached under the seat and knocked the underneath of the chair and said, actually, it's not. This is very very old leather.

Our visual sense can betray us. We make assumptions based on vision but sometimes these assumptions are wrong unless we verify them using our other senses. I don't think we stress touch enough with sighted children. Very often we tell children not to touch things giving reasons like, you might get dirty, you might break it, people might get annoyed, this is cultural (not to touch).

Cultural etiquette which varies from country to country regarding touch. This is one dimension that we have to consider, another dimension is interpersonal touch and touching of objects, 2 different tags yet touch can be regarded as profane where as vision is regarded as sophisticated. This sums up our western idea of the senses, vision is right up at the top and there is a problem with that.

If you look or touch on something that is nice, beautiful, aesthetic, pleasant that's an anchor point to get more disturbing elements under control. Until the ego is strong enough to to confront the disturbing elements and this may come at a later time, if the internal structure, the psychological structure is weak and fragmented, we may need to build it up with the senses and by concentrating on the senses, on the aesthetic on beauty, maybe bilaterally first, patient artwork, artwork patient, and then in a triangular fashion. All this helps strengthen the internal structures of a patient until they are ready to see more.

This is what I had to understand when working with blind patients. I'm sure there are ties and bridges to the work with psychosis; 'Gaze upon something with love and it is beautiful'.

When people don't have secure attachment it takes time to build it up, sometimes it may be too threatening to receive care from another person, but it's they may be able to build a secure relationship with an object, which is far less threatening and then eventually, you as the art therapist may be able to join in and establish joint attention.

I think there is a lot to be said for bilateral engagement; patient, artwork first which is in the pre-symbolic, here I do not join in so much, I may but often it's a self sustaining system between the two.

But later when we get to symbolisation it is crucial for that joining to make that step towards the symbol and the self-symbol".

Thank you to Uwe Herrmann for sharing his knowledge and experience and to Em Inman for interviewing Uwe!

If you would like to book onto the new course with Uwe on 14th October 2016 or for more information please click on the link below:

Based on clinical material and psychodynamic and art therapy theory, this course aims to deepen participants’ awareness and understanding of the processes of looking and touching within the triangular relationship.

We will scrutinize the progressive development of symbolization with this diverse client group alongside observing and rethinking issues around useful therapeutic interventions in art therapy.

Uwe Herrmann PG Dip AT, MA (AT), PhD, trained at the University of Hertfordshire and Goldsmiths College, where he completed his PhD on art psychotherapy with the congenitally blind in 2011. Since 1991 he has practised art therapy at the State Institute for the Blind in Hanover, Germany. Since 2000 he has been a lecturer and professor on the MA in Art Therapy at Berlin-Weissensee University.