What is RPM and why should I try it?

By Lisa Clinton

This is a question that I get all the time.  While I can answer the “What is RPM” question fairly well by now, I never feel like I have the perfect answer about why “you” should try it.  We tried it and it was one of the best decisions we ever made.  Our daughter can now communicate and we wouldn’t change anything we’ve done to get where we are today.  Is it for you?  First let me explain a little bit more about what RPM is and what we at Buffalo RPM do.  

RPM stands for Rapid Prompting Method.  It was created by a woman named Soma Mukhopadhyay, who grew up in India. She created the groundwork for her method by working tirelessly with her own autistic son for the last 28 years.  She found that by teaching purposeful movement and teaching her son with age-appropriate lessons, she had a lot of success getting through to him.  She refined her approach and found that it worked on other children also.  Her method became known as Rapid Prompting Method and she joined forces with a non-profit in Austin, TX to form the HALO clinic, where she still works today.  

When you have a child with autism or another related disability, a lot of the focus during therapy is on getting the child to be able to communicate.  Speech therapy will work on improving speech, reducing echolalia, teaching sign language and possibly using the picture exchange communication system or PECS as it is commonly known.  These are all considered methods of communication.  My daughter, who is nonverbal, types on an iPad using a bluetooth keyboard.  This is her method of communication.  While the ultimate goal of RPM is communication, it is not a method of communication.  It is an educational method that can lead to communication.  

In RPM, we presume competence in our students, so RPM incorporates age appropriate academic lessons that stimulate a student’s learning channels so that optimal learning can take place.  A learning channel is the way in which a person best processes information.  For example, some people are auditory learners and prefer to listen to a lecture in class, and others are more visual and learn better from reading notes on a smart board.  Most teachers incorporate both these methods because they realize that everyone learns differently.  RPM does that same thing.  We do lessons with students in such a way that all the different ways of learning are stimulated.

RPM is a process that teaches students purposeful action, reasoning and other skills.   The process takes time and dedication.  The first step is simply getting your child to tolerate you teaching them.  You write lessons on a variety of topics to teach them how to eventually get out their thoughts.  In the beginning, you just use a teach-ask approach with paper choices.  You might say, “the dog was running fast”,  did I say the dog was running F-A-S-T or U-P, writing those choices down on small pieces of paper or on a whiteboard.  The point in the beginning is just getting them to learn how to choose.  If they are incorrect it’s ok, we are not trying to test them, but rather teach them reasoning skills and the skill of making choices.  Eventually, as they get more comfortable with choices, we might have them practice spelling the choice, using prompts if needed.  As time goes by, choices are usually faded and the student works on answering directly by spelling on a stencil board or a laminated letter board.  We will also try to start getting some answers that require reasoning by asking questions that have a known answer or have a limited number of responses possible.  Over time, the student gains confidence and becomes more proficient at pointing and spelling, to the point where they may be ready for more open communication.  This might start by playing some word association games or other word games.  Eventually, at the end of a lesson you might be able to ask for some creative writing or let them ask a question, starting a back and forth dialogue.

It all sounds complicated and while it is in some ways, in other ways it really isn’t.  Buffalo RPM will give you access to workshops with Soma RPM certified providers and we’ll work to train you to do RPM lessons also if you would like.  But if you really want to make progress you have to work with your own child at home.  RPM does not work the same for everyone, but I guarantee you won’t get to where you want to be after one or two workshops. Everyone progresses at their own pace.  We’ve found that you have to be flexible and find what works best.  Yes, there is a standard way of doing things, but there is variation in each person’s experience, style and personality.  Just jump in and try your best.  Don’t worry about trying to replicate what Soma can do or other practitioners can do.  Soma has worked with thousands of kids over the years.  Laurie and I went to a training and were certified to teach by Soma.  We have also spent years working with our own kids and with other kids as well.   None of us were perfect at doing lessons when we first started.   We still aren’t perfect.  We had lessons that blew up into tantrums and yelling.  We did things that our kids found boring.  We stumbled over our words, forgot to write things down, held the stencils the wrong way, and didn’t hand them the pencil when we were supposed to.  In the long run it didn’t matter.  As our children got more proficient, so did we.  That’s part of the beauty of it.  You are building this bond with your child.  They see you mess up and get nervous and they don’t feel so bad about how they are doing.  When you do have a good lesson though, there are few better feelings.

If you are on the fence, I encourage you to give RPM a try.  It’s not easy. Most things that are successful take work and time. But it also isn’t as hard as you might think.  Don’t focus on the end goal of independent communication.  Just focus on today’s lesson.  If you find yourself slacking, don’t beat yourself up.  We’ve all been there.  Just get back on track and don’t ever stop completely.  It will be rewarding.   Every time you sit down to do an RPM lesson with your child, you are showing them you believe in them, you aren’t giving up and that there is still hope.