RPM: Accelerate Education for Non-Verbal Kids

“Our hope is that we can get these students to sit still long enough to do something productive like perhaps crush cans or shred paper.” Those words felt like a sledgehammer to my face, and I regretted that I had stumbled onto the wrong session.

This past January I was attending an autism seminar and was drawn to the breakout called “Activities for Non-verbal Students,” and because Josiah was not yet speaking, I thought I could benefit from learning some tips of interaction. I got just a few minutes into the session and realized the marketing blurb didn’t explain the targeted audience for this session very well. It was really more about high-school-aged kids with autism that were still non-verbal, and was facilitated by teachers of a local school district who worked with them.

I got that hot, flushed feeling that goes all the way from the top of your head down your back as they showed videos of these overgrown children screeching, rocking, and doing “productive” things like taking turns lifting weighted tupperware boxes over their heads. The well-meaning educators talked at length at how their day consisted of regulating behaviors. I got teleported 10 years into the future and I couldn’t bear even the thought that my son would ever have to be there–being managed, not educated.

I Think, Therefore I Am

The world we live in is a verbal world, and yet 40% of kids with autism will never speak. The ones that do speak seem to make their way in school alright with some help from aids, but the non-verbal ones are seemingly unreachable and unable to learn alongside everyone else beyond rudimentary skills. I pray and believe that my son will speak one day. But a couple of months ago when the three-year psychiatric evaluation came back around for insurance purposes, I watched in agony as the psychologist could not even test Josiah. Josiah wouldn’t give him the time of day or any indication that he was even comprehending a thing the guy was asking. Josiah sat in the trash can, inattentive. This society does not know how the autistic brain works. They craft assumptions. They assume a non-verbal child with autism is less intelligent than one that speaks, and that not only the expressive language is lacking but that the receptive language is scrambled.

I may be making sweeping generalizations by saying those things, but I’m going to make another sweeping generalization: these pre-verbal autstic kids don’t have a comprehension problem. They have an output issue. Most of the therapies out there don’t penetrate into the treasure trove of intellect that these people have but have not been able to express properly. The Rapid Prompting Method does. I can say that now with confidence because Josiah and I just spent four days in Green Bay, Wisc. learning how to do it, and immediately Josiah was able to express what he already knew and what he was able to be taught. It’s simple to do, yet profound in its effectiveness. I was flooded with hope.

I was first introduced to the Rapid Prompting Method by watching the HBO documentary “A Mother’s Courage.” In the documentary we meet a determined firecracker of a mother who came up with the method for her own child and is now teaching it to others–leave it to a mother to pioneer a way to bust through convention for her kid! Her name is Soma, and her son’s name is Tito, and you can learn all about their story here and even get the book on the method. It was inspiring to watch this method in action, but you always wonder if it would really work for your child, and how would you really access it anyway? This center and Soma were in Texas, and they only take kids older than 7.

Some Things I Now Know for Sure

My Googling fingers went to work and BINGO! Erika Anderson who has apprenticed under Soma for three years moved back to Green Bay to open a center there. Only 4 hours from the Twin Cities, I thought I could do that! She offered a 4-day “camp” consisting of two 2-hour RPM sessions a day, and she was taking kids as young as 5. RPM also is helpful for those who are verbal and need a little more help expressing themselves. I found some people from online searches that had done RPM and got glowing recommendations, so I was off to Packerland.

Josiah learning through the Rapid Prompt Method

The first moment we got there, Erika, in a no-nonsense but incredibly warm way, ushered Josiah to a stark room with these simple tools: a table, two chairs, white paper, tape, a timer, #2 yellow pencils and stencil boards of numbers and letters. And they went to work as I observed. While the mechanics of the Rapid Prompting Method don’t need to be explained here, I will tell you the profound perspective shift that happened in ME as I saw my son learn about things like the Ice Age, Eskimos, vowels, spelling, addition, telling time and Christopher Columbus using RPM:

1. Josiah is intelligent and he is listening to everything we’re saying even when it looks like he’s dialed out. I learned that his primary way of learning is auditory, while I thought it was visual. Although he is in tune with his iPad and the pictures there, he is selectively visual. On the other hand, he is hearing and processing that which is being spoken. The teacher didn’t dumb anything down; she just spoke to him like he was a typical 5-year-old, and he responded correctly to comprehension about 85-90% of the time when choosing from a field of two answers.

2. He can learn and be educated at grade level. Josiah would normally be going into kindergarten this year, but he is nowhere near ready according to what’s been achieved in this 3 years at his autism therapy center using Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)/Applied Verbal Behavior (AVB) therapy. I would imagine we’re more like two years away from being able to enter school. But Erika showed me how to teach Josiah from the book, What Your Kindergartner Needs to Know. Always assume normal, age typical intelligence and teach from that perspective, she encouraged. I was so excited about what Josiah already knew, and what he was able to learn. Immediately, it boosted the quality of the interactions that I have with Josiah.

3. I know enough now to be frustrated with a holy discontent. This method works for my son, in fact no matter what age the non-verbal autistic person is, Erika and Soma have yet to find a case where RPM hasn’t worked for them. It starts with making choices from two fields, moving to three, spelling by pointing at stencil boards until motor skills improve, and eventually to being able to express independent thoughts through writing or typing. To progress to that point unlocks the world of a non-verbal child by giving him a voice. But what to do with this? I can practice for 25-45 minute sessions with Josiah at home every day, but what about all the time he spends at his therapy center? He is learning wonderful things there, but he’s by no means being educated at grade level.

How do you get therapists on board with a technique that cannot be scored in the same way as ABA is on charts and graphs? It’s the same issue I’ve had with them really being able to implement the power of the iPad for learning. What about when Josiah goes to school? This is so innovative that getting conventional therapists, educators, and insurance companies to bite seems close to impossible. Homeschooling seems more feasible, but how to do that with our two-income household? Well, in the meantime, I’m wanting to bring Erika to the Twin Cities for a workshop. She’ll travel and work with 2-12 individuals and families for a reasonable price while parents, therapists and even the media can observe the technique and learn themselves. Please contact me if you would be interested.

4. Kids with special needs must know that you believe in them. Making sure that the running dialogue with your child is very positive and affirming while stretching them to do what they haven’t done before is key. Kids with autism can feel less valuable, have lower self-esteem, and become frustrated with a body that won’t do all that they wish it would. So, my encouragement for Josiah to excel and try hard while celebrating the tremendous effort he puts forward is going to intentionally increase. He hears it and appreciates it.

I am so proud of my son. It was certainly a journey where everything was new for him–staying in a hotel, swimming in those big pools, eating in a lot of restaurants, and learning in a whole different way. Aside from some sleeplessness and high-pitched vocalizations that hurt my pride more than anything, Josiah was a happy camper. The week we spent there is going to change so many things, and I am grateful.

Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?
There it is! I’m making a road through the desert,
rivers in the badlands. Isaiah 43:19