RPM, the Life-Changing Method That Helped My Non-Verbal Son to "Talk"
Rapid Prompting Method, or RPM, was created by Soma Mukhopadhyay, a Indian mother and chemist who wanted to teach her non-verbal son, Tito, who has autism, to express himself and expand his mind.
Over the last fifteen years, Soma's refined RPM and taught Tito to read, write, and type, and she's also given him a robust academic education. In fact, Tito's written several books! Now, Soma lives in Austin, Texas, where she trains other teachers and parents in RPM and helps many other kids express themselves.
I first heard about RPM from a friend whose non-verbal 10-year-old son (we'll call him John) had been using it for seven years. Although John has signs of classic autism (no speech, motor impairments, lots of issues with focus), he's smart. While John and my son, Liam (who is also non-verbal), messily ate cereal, my friend ran me through a condensed version of John's struggles with therapists, communication, and school. Suddenly, John started sobbing. My friend grabbed a letter board, hugged John, and asked him what was wrong. Slowly, he spelled out: "I HATE IT WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT ME LIKE I AM NOT HERE."
I burst into tears, too. The reality of that moment hit me like a lightning bolt: John -- who wore diapers and ate like a toddler -- was thinking, listening, and expressing his thoughts. From that moment forward, I knew Liam had to try RPM.
For Ido Kedar, a non-verbal teenager with autism, RPM helped him "break out of autism's silent prison." When I read this, I knew that I wanted the same thing for Liam, so we started RPM almost immediately. Luckily, we found a provider in a nearby suburb who had been trained by Soma.
A lot of questions still surround RPM, and I wanted to answer a few of the most common ones here.
What is RPM?
RPM is an academic method first, but as Soma says on her website, "verbal and written expression is the ultimate goal for all students." One of the most cherished beliefs of the method is that students with autism can learn BUT we have to teach them appropriate academics. After all, to quote Soma again, "without academic exposure, students lack motivation and conversational skills." So, RPM not only gives students a method to communicate, it also gives them things to talk about beyond basic needs.
What does it involve?
The process of RPM is quite simple: a teacher gives a short lesson, asks a question, and then elicts a response using verbal, auditory, or visual prompts. My son's teacher might start by reading him a sentence and then asking, "What did I say?" She'll often give him two choices written out on a piece of paper. From just picking answers, students of RPM then begin to spell out answers using a stencil board (see below) or a paper letter board (like the one Liam's using in the picture above). Eventually, students will advance to typing or handwriting answers to complex questions. In the picture above, Liam is "writing" his first sentence ever! He and his teacher had just done a lesson on the human body, and they were talking about feet. She asked him, "What do we use our feet for?" Using his finger to point to one letter at a time, and through her prompting him to keep him on task, he spelled out: "WE USE OUR FEET TO WALK."
Does RPM really work?
Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. Liam has RPM lessons twice a week. In the last year, he's progressed quickly from answering yes/no questions to using stencil boards to using a more complex letter board. Eventually, he'll learn to type out his answers.
If you'd like to see this method in action, I highly recommend watching "A Mother's Courage" (available on Netflix) and reading Ido in Autismland or The Reason I Jump, both written by non-verbal kids with autism. The kids' abilities will blow you away!
How do we use RPM in our home?
I've written about how RPM let us "hear" Liam's first "I love you," but here's a recent Facebook status I posted in an RPM Homeschooling community group. It shows just how important RPM is in our every day life, and how it's changing the landscape of autism in our house:
At 5 o'clock this morning Liam was hungry and shrieking at me in frustration. I grabbed the RPM board, and using A-I/J-R/S-Z letter choices, I got him to tell me how he was feeling.
I asked why and without blinking an eye, he spelled:
Because he wanted a pear for breakfast and I so wasn't getting that.
He's just 6, and we have only been doing RPM for a year, but these small windows into his thoughts make my heart sing.
Should parents do RPM? What If we don't have RPM teachers near us?
I asked Liam's RPM teacher, a former special education teacher who's been trained by Soma, to talk about a parent's role in RPM. She's been teaching me how to do RPM at home, and here's what she had to say:
"Parents are key to their child's success! Believing in what your child is capable of is powerful, and it can have a huge impact in their lives. If you don't have an RPM provider in your area, you can read Soma's books (see picture below), watch her videos, and go on UnlockingVoices.com. You can also book a camp session with Soma to get jumpstarted, and then keep working and learning. Also, you don't need a lot of fancy materials. For teaching your child, age-appropriate material (like ones you can get from the local library or your child's school) is the best resource for your kids to learn. Assume your 5th grader can learn and understand 5th grade information. Talk to your kid as if he understands everything and most importantly believe in them."
I know it can be hard to believe that our kids can learn, but they can! Through RPM, I've realized that Liam has a lot to say and that he can learn at his grade level. I highly recommend RPM, and if you have more questions about it, feel free to email me, message me on Facebook, or write in the comments section below.
I'll leave you with this sign which hangs on the wall of Liam's RPM Clinic. For me, it's a great reminder that what seems impossible can really be possible:
Jamie Pacton lives near Lake Michigan where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam (6) and Eliot (4). Her writing has appeared in the Autism and Asperger's Digest (2011-2013), Parents, and the book collection Monday Coffee and Other Stories of Parenting Kids with Special Needs. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter @jamiepacton
Images provided by Jamie Pacton