Addressing the Controversy of RPM

Since practicing RPM as a professional, I have started making connections in the education, social services, and professional autism fields.  I quickly learned that Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) is considered “controversial” to many, but not everyone, in these fields.  This label puts a wall up between people who should be working together to improve the lives of the people we all want to help.  It has been said in the Bible, as well as quoted by Abraham Lincoln, that a house divided cannot stand.  By addressing this controversy, I hope to build bridges that will help parents, professionals, and the individual with a disability work together as a true and unified team.

Many people do not understand what RPM is.  RPM is an EDUCATIONAL method that can lead to communication.  It is not in and of itself a communication method. What do I mean by this?  It is not the equivalent of other communication methods that are commonly taught to people with autism.  These include speech, sign language, and picture exchange communication system (PECS).  My son Philip who is now 14 and remains mostly unable to speak, was taught speech and PECS for many years.  He was able to learn to request objects and basic needs like chips, milk, potty, outside, and break.  To see Philip achieve these feats at age 4 was wonderful and exciting, but he could not manage to go beyond requesting and meeting basic needs through speech and picture exchange.  From age 4 to 9 (9 was the age we started RPM), it was not obvious to us that Philip was making more than miniscule progress.  The yearly IEP had only slight variations of the goals the year before- 1:1 correspondence of numbers 1-5, identifying 5 sight words, matching upper to lower case letters, identifying and requesting 5 new items.  There had to be more to life than this.

Enter RPM.  On the advice of a mother in my autism support group and a giant leap of faith, my husband and I took Philip on a trip to Austin, Texas, to enroll in a 4 day camp to learn RPM from its creator, Soma Mukhopadhyay.  It is not an overstatement to say it completely changed our lives. Watching Soma work with Philip was like nothing we had witnessed before.  She talked to Philip calmly and intelligently as she taught him about the water cycle, the first Thanksgiving, stories by Aesop, and 2-digit addition and subtraction.  She conveyed a confidence in our son’s abilities that was not forced by excess praise or exaggerated expression.  It was genuine.  And our son responded positively, showing he could choose correctly from her choices about what she had taught.  He even spelled some answers that week.  We had no idea he knew more than what a letter looked like, let alone that it made certain sounds that when put together make words.

When we got home, the job was for me to do RPM with Philip.  This took me a long time to learn, which I did through reading Soma’s books, an online support group, lots of practice, and trial and error. Needless to say, I was not good at it when I started.  In fact, there were times I wanted to throw in the towel.  But I stuck with it, because deep down, I knew this method made sense.  I knew the set-up of me learning to do RPM was better than the other therapies that required me to just drop off Philip for a half hour for his weekly session. This was going to be a complete lifestyle change for our family.  It was not a quick fix.  Nothing ever is.

I have learned a lot through my experiences working with my son, eventually training and becoming certified in RPM, and now working with a variety of students.  I want to clear up this notion of “controversy” so that other parents and professionals are not afraid to try it.

Forgive me for taking a tangent into my own story.  Let me get back to my point about RPM being an educational method. RPM presumes anyone can LEARN!  Not everyone will start at the same point, but everyone can be taught new things.  Learning will not look the same as learning in a neurotypical person. Take Helen Keller for example. She could not learn by using her eyes or ears.  She had to use the sense that was available to her: touch.  Through Anne Sullivan’s teaching in a way that was uniquely suitable to Helen Keller, she was able to join society.  And from there on, her progress spiraled upward.  She learned braille, graduated college, wrote books, and even learned to speak!  Think about how impossible that should have been for someone both blind and deaf! RPM has done similar for many people with autism and related disabilities around the world.  At one point, I thought I would never know what Philip truly felt.  Now he can tell me through pointing to letters to spell his thoughts.  I do not take for granted that this is a miracle to me.

RPM takes into account a neuro-atypical way of processing the world. With over 100 billion neurons in just our brains alone (not including peripheral neurons), our nervous system is our most complex organ system, affecting our senses, movement, thinking, memory, emotion, stress, and so much more.  Because I am not autistic myself, I will never fully understand how an autistic person learns, but I will try my best to teach to how each child learns best and not to a neurotypical standard or my personal preference.

According to Soma Mukhopadhyay, every RPM lesson has 4 objectives: cognitive, skill, tolerance, and communication.  This is how I have come to understand it.  In order to communicate, we must learn to coordinate 3 things all at once. First, we need something to talk about. This is our cognitive objective. The more we can learn about the world, through academics and sharing stories and ideas, the more we can think intelligently and have something to communicate about.  When we repeat the same simple lessons day after day and year after year, we only have very limited things to think and talk about. But all this thinking will remain locked in the mind if we don’t teach the skill of showing what we know.  The skill objective focuses on literacy and the motor skills required for the output of thought.  Right from the beginning, a short piece of information is taught (cognitive objective) and a question is asked about that information through written choices (literacy-reading) and choosing (motor skill- pointing). Just as Hellen Keller did not stop learning skills after learning to write in her teacher’s hand, students using RPM can continue to learn skills beyond pointing to spell on a letterboard. They can learn to type, handwrite, develop hobbies, and in some cases, even speak.  The third objective is tolerance.  I like to call this “learning to be present.”  Recently I was caught daydreaming through a cocktail conversation among physicians at a dinner party discussing a new surgical procedure. Because I wasn’t interested and I wasn’t clued in to the conversation, I was caught off guard when someone asked me a question after what seemed like an hour of droning on.  I use this example to help put ourselves in our student’s shoes when we teach them.  Prompts are simply ways we can clue our kids in to actively engaging with us to listen and respond.  Especially in the beginning, we ought to have interesting lessons that our kids can relate to.  We should have back and forth participation, keeping our teaching points short before asking a question.  We should allow students to be as comfortable as possible so they can participate to their best ability.  For some, that means allowing kids to move.  For others, it is allowing a child to watch his favorite video while working. From my experience, these accommodations can eventually be reduced and then not needed at all.  When you have the cognitive, skill, and tolerance components clicking in synchrony, that’s when open communication can start to emerge.

As the parent or teacher doing the RPM, we must remember our responsibility is TEACHING.  That means the burden is on us to help the child learn.  We should not put the burden on the child to get it right. That is called TESTING.  Testing can lead to anxiety that is another barrier to learning.  When our child or student does not answer in the way we expected, we must figure out where the breakdown was.  Maybe we reteach the cognitive objective.  We may have to coach them to point more accurately when spelling known responses.  Or maybe we must clue the child in from distractions by enhancing the lesson with different sensory components like drawing a diagram or singing.

Can communication only happen in the context of an RPM lesson?  No, but learning to communicate can be a long process of learning to coordinate thoughts, skill, and tolerance. Communication most easily flows from an RPM lesson, where the person can relate the subject to his internal thoughts and how it relates to life.  After much practice a person can become successful communicating without RPM. When you see a person typing or pointing on a letterboard to converse, this is no longer RPM, but a product of a lot of RPM practice to get there!  While the goal is to achieve as much independence as possible, the process of getting there must be enjoyed and valued more highly than the destination. I take inspiration from Helen Keller’s life.  She said, “I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” And also, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” RPM has not cured my son’s autism or given him full independence, but it has unlocked his potential to do the things he can do, given him a way to be included in the world, and provided him a voice to be known and to truly express himself.  There should be no controversy in a transformed life.