Future Reflections Spring 1992, Vol. 11 No. 2


by Lilli Nielsen, Ph.D.
Special Education Advisor, Refsnaesskolen, Denmark

[PICTURE] A baby explores the objects in Dr. Nielsen's Little Room

     Editor's Note: We in the National Federation of the Blind are fond of saying that, given the proper training and opportunity, blind people can compete on the basis of equality. This assumes that if society will provide the opportunity, the blind individual will provide the motivation and drive. If this is true for blind adults (and we know, through the experiences of thousands, that it is), is it not also true for blind children and infants—including the multiply disabled? If given the proper stimulus--the proper environment and opportunity--do not blind and blind-multiply- disabled infants, too, have the same innate urge and desire to explore and learn as other infants have?

     Not everyone thinks so. Many professionals believe that, as one counselor of blind babies recently put it, "They [blind children] are naturally self-centered and without motivation...."

     Now, of course blind children are self-centered; ALL children are self-centered; that's common knowledge among parents and other early childhood specialists. But, unmotivated? Are blind children so unlike other children that we must somehow instill in them a desire for learning, as well as give them opportunities for learning? Many professionals apparently operate out of this belief. But the lives of thousands of blind people and the observations of hundreds of parents tell us this is a lie, a false and harmful myth. Fortunately, not all professionals buy into this myth; and Dr. Lilli Nielsen seems to be one of them.

     I first heard about Lilli Nielsen and the Little Room when I received an invitation to a National Conference sponsored by the Blind Children's Fund. Dr. Lilli Nielsen was coming to the U.S.A. to do an in-depth five-day conference about the techniques and equipment she had developed to help blind children—especially blind, multiply-disabled children--reach out into the world and begin to develop concepts about objects and spatial relations. I was intrigued, but unfortunately could not attend the first conference (yes, there is a second one coming up. See page --- in the Hear Ye! section of the issue for more details.)  So, I wrote and asked Dr. Nielsen for information about the Little Room which I could consider sharing with our readers.

     Then, the VIP July, 1991, issue came out with an article, written by a parent, about the conference. It contained enlightening information about Ms. Nielsen and the philosophy behind the invention of the Little Room. Portions of that VIP article by Donna Tatro (entitled "I could not contain my awe and enthusiasm") are reprinted below followed by the article Ms. Nielsen submitted to Future Reflections.

     Although I have never seen the Little Room demonstrated and have no opinion whatsoever about its effectiveness or usefulness, the concept behind it seems to be sensible. Here is the report on the conference and Ms. Nielson's own description of the Little Room and her methods.
VIP Newsletter, July, 1991. By Ms. Donna Tatro:

 ...Dr. Nielsen took several traditionally accepted practices and threw them out of the window, much to the dismay of several seasoned teachers of the visually impaired. For example, it is Dr. Nielsen's belief and observance that a child can not be taught. Rather, a child must learn for himself how something is done, or it will not register (author's word) for the long term. She is very much against hand-over-hand anything, and she told us story after story of instances in which a child learned something himself using her techniques.

     Actually, it's erroneous to say that these are Dr. Nielsen's techniques. She merely questioned herself time and time again as to why a child was not learning something or why a child was not leaning something or why a child was behaving in a certain way. When faced with a problem, she observed experts. her experts were often found in a nursery or preschool and are what many would term as "normal" children. She made many, many videotapes of typical children in various stages of development, and through studying her tapes she picked up clues as to how the blind child could learn something. She also made videotapes of her involved children and watched them over and over again picking out subtle things, sometimes only after watching a tape for the 80th time!

     The thing that impressed me most about Dr. Nielsen was her determination to work with and help the forgotten or ignored children. She has chosen for 30 years to work with infants through adults who are multiply impaired and autistic. Those children who are stuffed into the corners of institutions. When being introduced to children who needed help, institutions staff members would pass up these children saying, "Don't bother with him, he doesn't even have a brain." Lilli would say, "That is the child I want to start with!" And this "brainless" child would come alive under Lilli's tutorage. It's no wonder that she was chosen to be the Special Education Advisor for the Danish National Institute for the Blind.

     Dr. Nielsen notes that most blind or multiply-involved children do not learn because they are not presented with the right circumstances in which to learn. Her book, The Comprehending Hand, is packed from the first page to the last with practical hints as to how material and surroundings can be adapted so that a blind child may be stimulated and encouraged in their development. The Comprehending Hand was written because Dr. Nielsen has learned that "the development of the ability to grasp is of fundamental importance, if a blind child is to get into contact with his surroundings..."

     Dr. Nielsen also wrote, Are You Blind? to promote the development of children who are developmentally threatened. I thought this to be an odd title until it struck me that her title is insinuating, and correctly so, that it is the teacher (or caregiver) who can't see what should be obvious--the whys that explain the reason a child has not learned something. It is up to us to promote learning environments and situations in which our children can learn.

     The conference was laced with Dr. Nielsen's special, yet serious, humor. For instance, she noted that if while standing with a blind person on a platform at a train station, we say, "The train is coming," as soon as it becomes visible to us, our blind companion might think we must be pretty stupid because he has known for several minutes that the train on this track is coming; after all he could feel its vibrations....

     This trip to the U.S.A. was a first for Lilli Nielsen. Although she is well known internationally and has given "standing room" only workshops on several continents, this was her first presentation in North America. The list of attendees at the conference demonstrates her popularity. Participants came from coast to coast as well as Canada, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Netherland Antilles, Mexico, and Trinidad.

                 THE LITTLE ROOM

                      by Dr. Lilli Nielsen

     In 1981 an experience with a two-year-old self-mutilating child made me think that the reason for this child's, and many other visually impaired children's, difficulties in developing was maybe due to a lack of knowledge about the surroundings.

     I designed the "Little Room" hoping that it would provide the visually impaired child with a frame of reference concerning spatial relations and thus facilitate the child's learning about the outside world. After observing the positive reactions to the "Little Room" in visually impaired children who had other disabilities, I decided to a scientific study on the effect of the Little room on 20 congenitally blind infants. This study was conducted from 1984-1987.

     In the experiment, each of the 20 infants were exposed to a control environment and thereafter to the Little Room. Despite the fact that the control environment was arranged with the same number of objects as the Little Room, the infants were mostly passive in the control environment but became much more active during stays in the Little Room. I concluded that the main reasons for the Improvement were:

     1. The sounds from the outside world were sufficiently eliminated by the Little Room, enabling the infant to concentrate on the object-based sounds he was producing inside the Little Room.

     2. The stability of the equipment and arrangement of the Little Room provided the child with a certain feedback on each movement. This facilitated the child's learning of the position of the objects and early object concept.

     3. The echoes in the Little Room reinforced the child's auditory experiences.

     4. The Little Room was equipped with objects of tactile and auditory qualities.  This encouraged the child to explore these qualities and thus establish early integration of the kinesthetic-tactile-auditory sense modalities.

     5. Objects were present in sufficient number enabling the child to compare his experiences and to play sequence games.

     6. Nobody was interfering in the child's activities as long as he was placed in the Little Room.

     By means of the activities in the Little Room, 11 of the 20 infants learned that they were the producers of the object based sounds occurring in the Little Room.  The youngest to learn this was 6-months-old (correcting for prematurity, 3-months-old).  Additionally, 15 of the infants commenced to explore and experiment with the objects hanging in the Little Room.

     From my findings arose the awareness of the necessity of equipping the Little Room according to the individual child's needs. Nevertheless, the objects should: be of pleasure to the child; be easy to grasp; have tactile and auditory qualities; be visually inspiring; have comparable qualities; and be present in such a number that the child has the opportunity to choose, to combine his experiences, and to play various sequence games.

     Since the completion of the study a lot more knowledge has been gained concerning different ways equipping the Little Room as well as about how the achieved spatial relations can be applied to environments other than the Little Room.

     Nielsen, L. (1980): "Spatial Relations in Congenitally Blind Infants." Refsnaesskolen, National Institute for Blind and Partially Sighted Children and Youth, 4400 Klundborg, Denmark.

     Nielsen, L. (1991): "Spatial Relations in Congenitally Blind Infants: A Study." Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, January, 11-16.

     Nielsen, L. (1991): Rummet og Jeg'et. SIKON, Denmark.

     *The English version, "The Space and the Self" will be available in 1992 at SIKON, P.O. 2555, Kristineberg 6, 2100 Copenhagen O, Denmark.