Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) is a powerful tool for education and communication. For people who are nonspeaking, low speaking or unreliable speakers (those who talk but are not able to effectively communicate) RPM is a means of expression through learning. It is an honor to work with kids and adults who are developing the motor skills to point to letters, without physical support, to spell to communicate for the first time. It takes time, patience and plenty of practice to learn to use RPM, both as a student and as a practitioner. The learning curve can be steep and progress can be slow, but with consistent practice, both the student and adult can learn to use the letter boards. One of the most best parts of my job is coaching parents and watching them become skilled on the letter boards with their children. Since I cannot explain how it feels to be a parent going through the process of learning RPM, I asked my client and now dear friend, Angie Paquin, to write a guest blog and share her RPM story.
“I began dabbling in some self-taught RPM with my then 13 year old son, Liam, during the Spring/Summer of 2014 after hearing people sing it’s praises over and over on an unrelated Facebook group. I had heard of RPM and even read Tito’s first book The Mind Tree several years ago, but really didn’t fully understand what it was and how it could benefit my son. I actually never really thought of it for him because he could “talk.” I saw it as something for kids who had no verbal speaking ability. My son can use speech to get his basic needs met, make comments, and even ask some questions. I honestly didn’t think that he had this whole other voice inside of him. I knew he understood a lot more than he could say, but I truly felt that he had some cognitive limitations.
After hearing so many parents talk about how amazing RPM is, I started researching. I quickly found two blogs “Emma’s Hope Book” and “Faith, Hope, Love and Autism” featuring Emma and Philip. What I witnessed there completely blew me away. I was even more intrigued because I saw that Emma talked and that was the first time I saw just how disparate the outside can be from the inside. Seeing is believing, however, I still doubted Liam’s competence and I thought “maybe if we work really hard in a few years he’ll be able to do what they are doing.” I thought I would have to teach him how to read and spell, but saw the letterboard and paper choices as an easier way for him to show his abilities once acquired. I immediately began trying it out at home on my own. I purchased some reading comprehension workbooks and “What Your Kindergartener Needs to Know” and started teaching and asking multiple choice questions. I realize my 13 year old son was not a kindergartner, but that is just how off I was about his competence. It’s hard to believe that was my thinking one year ago. I didn’t get that he had been listening and absorbing information all around him, taking it in like a sponge. I thought I had to “catch him up.” Needless to say, he LOVED it. I can recall him just staring at me in disbelief that I was actually teaching him about continents, the solar system, and art and music rather than drilling him on sight words, making him read first grade primers over and over again, and using manipulatives for basic math facts.
I immediately saw that he could comprehend auditory information and answer anything I asked correctly. I then began making my questions harder. For example, if we were talking about democracy instead of defining it for him I would ask him what he thought it meant – using multiple choice answers. He seemed to know everything. I then began wondering if maybe he could spell some words. I crafted some homemade three letter boards and started having him spell his choices. I had no idea how to prompt, even though that is the second word in RPM! I quickly saw that with the three boards he could spell! Now I was really excited and knew we needed to get to a professional stat; someone that could show me how to apply RPM to Liam specifically, and what this prompting business was all about.
Enter Elizabeth! We were so fortunate to get in to a local workshop happening two hours from our home in October 2014. I was so nervous because Liam has bad anxiety that evokes a fight or flight response and I knew going into this unfamiliar setting we were going to see some fireworks. I talked with Elizabeth about it, warning her, and she was so understanding and confident I had the courage to sign him up and go. That workshop was like a rebirth. I had a son I never met before. It was the first time I heard his real voice. It was so different than the child sitting before me, the child I had known for 13 years. I couldn’t get enough of his voice. It made me laugh, cry, feel angry, and cheer. I tear up just thinking about it! That was the first time I heard that he knew he had autism, even though we really didn’t use the A word. It was heartbreaking to hear how he felt about having Autism. I realized in those five days that RPM and Liam’s education were my absolute top priority. I knew that he needed me to dedicate myself to him and practice everyday because we have no RPM providers in our area. It was me or he would go silent again and there was no way I was going to let that happen.
We returned home and I immediately began daily lessons. I saw what he could do, how to do it, but really hadn’t done RPM for real myself. But I had confidence that together we could get there. It helped that Liam has predominately been home-schooled and I have implemented every intervention we have tried myself. With that experience, Liam and I were already comfortable with me being teacher and he would work for me. I think that really helped. Each morning I had a prepared lesson and would sit down at our dining room table and channel my inner Elizabeth. Liam loved for me to imitate her and would request that I even do her hand motions! If I didn’t do the hand gesturing he would look at me and lift his hand and start gesturing as my cue to get with it! I found that he loved watching the videos of him working with Elizabeth, who he affectionately calls “Biscuit.” He had his best sessions after watching part of a video so I often let him watch them on my phone in the morning while he ate breakfast. It actually gave both of us a boost so I could perfect my imitation skills!
It was rough going at first, despite all of that. He would often explode very quickly, throwing everything on the floor, sometimes even hitting me, if he didn’t easily get out what he wanted to say. I learned in our workshop that he is a perfectionist and very hard on himself. Having this information, his behavior was more understandable to me. I found the more I was patient and understanding, rather than angry and frustrated, the more he tried to control his temper. I saw a new found sense of self determination in him. I now understand that he gets how RPM is an opportunity for him, to free him from “life in prison” as he has described it. I think, for so long, he saw no out and was just so angry. Blowing up makes sense to me now. His temper management has come a long way since October and we now are pretty much able to do sessions five days a week with minimal to no explosiveness! That is huge for him and a very unexpected benefit of RPM.
One of our biggest challenges is that I also work part time! So fitting in the lesson planning and sessions can be difficult. One thing I have learned over the years of being teacher, therapist, and mom to my son is that I have to treat our homeschooling hours like a job. A long time ago I started scheduling my time to work with him and I let nothing interfere. I don’t answer my phone, I make sure to schedule other appointments around our time, and I let go of all the things that need to be done such as dishes, laundry, paying bills. I do them later. This is our time and I hold it very sacred, otherwise it won’t happen!
After our workshop, Liam was only able to tolerate about a 20-30 minute RPM session. After RPM I would read to him for 15 minutes from our current novel. I would try to do a second RPM lesson later in the day on the days I wasn’t working, but he was only able to do it about 10% of the time, so I dropped that and just concentrated on building his tolerance and stamina for his first session. I concentrated on getting more and more open communication. At first, it was really hard. I was so nervous to ask him open ended questions, especially the creative writing portion of the lesson where I ask a big open ended question that gets at his thoughts and feeling. I was afraid we would just get gibberish and that he would get mad and I would lose my confidence. I ended up just telling him straight up “I know you have the ability to answer this question, but I am not Elizabeth and this is new for me, so we just have to be patient while I build my skills. Maybe we’ll get there today and maybe we won’t, and that’s okay. One day it will become easy.” By giving us both permission to try and maybe not succeed, it took off some of the pressure. Initially, we had some pretty disjointed sentences and incomplete ideas. But pretty quickly I started getting to hear the child I heard in our workshop and those moments became the thing I treasured most.
It has not always been easy to hear what he has to say. He’s been dealing with a lot of grief and anger about his life circumstances. Often expressing that kind of emotion triggers weeks of resistance to doing RPM. During those times, I just go to easier lessons or maybe just read to him, watch educational videos, and do math and music theory which is non-emotional and very regulating for him. It’s been hard for me to let go and not get to hear his voice during these times, but I now know that any resistance is not a resistance to RPM itself. I know he craves learning and wants opportunity for himself probably more than I want it for him. It’s simply too much emotion and he needs a break to recover.
Today we are 10 months out from our workshop experience. I have a whole new understanding of my son and dreams for him that I had let go of many years ago. I see a whole new life for him. I now get that a lot of his “talking” is unintentional and meaningless. That was a BIG surprise. His RPM voice is very different from his speaking voice. He’s told me to “only listen to my spelling.” Today we do RPM lessons Monday through Friday for 45 minutes and read for 15 to 20 minutes. On days I am home, we might read from a history or science text, watch an educational video, practice handwriting and piano; just trying to feed the brain. Some days he’s tired and that’s too much. We try and keep him busy with sports which is something he loves, so he ice skates or roller blades, rides his bike, swims, skis in the winter, and has plenty of time to just be outside in nature as we live on a rural island outside of Portland, OR. He has begun doing lessons with other teachers and is finally and successfully doing a second RPM lesson a couple of days per week. He has a math tutor now as he has surpassed my ability to teach him. He’ll be starting a couple online high school courses this Fall which he has begged for. That will be our new adventure! I’m excited to see where we will be one year from now!
If I had two pieces of advice to offer anyone starting RPM it would be to have confidence in yourself and your child and to make daily practice a habit, even if it’s only for 5-10 minutes. Schedule the time and make a commitment. I know you won’t regret it!”
We are so grateful to Angie and Liam for sharing their story! In our next blog, we will share some of Liam’s work with his mom on the letter boards. You can learn to do RPM at home too ~ commit to practicing, believe in yourself and your child, allow and laugh at mistakes and enjoy the process!
~Elizabeth, Angie and Liam