Soma Mukhopadhyay’s son, Tito, is nonverbal and on the severe end of the autism spectrum. Yet he is also a writer. He has hammered out poetry and even books, like How Can I Talk If My Lips Don’t Move? Inside My Autistic Mind and The Mind Tree: A Miraculous Child Breaks the Silence of Autism. The alleged reason behind this success? Soma taught him to communicate his thoughts via a process she developed called Rapid Prompting Method, or RPM.
Since then, Soma has been working in Austin, Texas, with other nonverbal children on the spectrum, utilizing this method. Similar results came about for these students, as well: once unable to communicate and thus thought to be unthinking and unintelligent, nonverbal children and teens on the spectrum wowed their parents with their sudden ability to express themselves—and proved just how smart they were.
This may sound incredible at first glance, but that’s the key thing, here: first glance. When we look deeper at RPM, we see that controversy surrounding the subject abounds. While it has reportedly been successful in anecdotal cases, there are pressing issues and concerns that need to be addressed in order for it to be considered legitimate—even safe, in some cases.
What Is Rapid Prompting Method?
RPM itself is not actually a method of communication; it is a learning device in which a practitioner prompts a child to do something or answer a question. The idea is people with nonverbal autism struggle with apraxia and sensory sensitivities. The repeated prompting keeps them attentive and focused. And yes, it allegedly is a gateway to communication.
So how does that portion of it work? Humor me and my nerdiness for a second as I refer you to Stranger Things—a Netflix TV show in which a 12-year-old boy goes missing. Though he is gone and no one can find him, his mother swears he’s somewhere close and is communicating with her through his house’s lights. In one episode, she paints the alphabet on her wall and strings Christmas lights along it. Her son then sends her messages by lighting up individual letters in order to chain together words.
RPM uses that exact same concept, minus the supernatural element: people with autism point to letters on a letterboard in order to spell out words.
(Thank you for indulging my nerdy side. I’m done for the day.)
Why Is It So Controversial?
At this point in time, scientists and other experts are very skeptical of RPM—some bashing it quite harshly. It’s certainly understandable why they’re so critical of it: it could potentially be ineffective, and if that is true, it could even be used unethically.
Though RPM has been around for several years now, there is all but one study examining its efficacy, which is referenced on HALO, the website devoted to RPM. The study is small, exploratory, and doesn’t even test RPM as a mode of communication—one of the most potentially amazing things about it. The study did, however, find that individuals who went through RPM engaged in fewer repetitive behaviors and were more focused. But again, it was a small pilot study. We can’t glean solid conclusions from it.
Since then, its efficacy hasn’t been scrutinized by a single study. Experts continually state that more research needs to be done before we can make a judgment one way or the other. Yet researchers still leave it untouched.
Why? There could be several factors at play, perhaps one of them being RPM’s striking similarity to Facilitated Communication (FC).
We do have conclusions on FC. And those conclusions are not good.
FC is another communication method for people with nonverbal autism, one that came out in the 1990s. Similarly to RPM, it uses a keyboard that people with autism can type on or point to. But the main distinction between the two practices was that FC guided the individual by touch. Facilitators would steady the hands of their clients which, in theory, allowed them to type their own unique, complex thoughts.
In reality, FC is bogus, and we have scientific studies to show for it. It was shown that the bias of the facilitator came through subconsciously to make the client spell out what they wanted them to say. Just to show you one of the many examples, here is a study in which all of the test subjects’ performance was entirely dependent upon their facilitators.
As such, the scientific community has debunked FC as a method of communication. It is considered pseudoscientific. In some cases, it has even been dangerous to the nonverbal individuals. In 2015, a facilitator was charged with numerous accounts of sexual assault toward her nonverbal client, who supposedly gave his consent through FC. The reverse situation has also happened, in which facilitators have gotten their clients to declare accusations of rape—accusations that were found to be false. In another case, a mother killed her nonverbal son, who supposedly suggested through FC that they should commit suicide together.
Even so, FC continues to be practiced to this day, much to the frustration of experts. So is it really any wonder skeptics are critical of RPM? They argue that RPM is simply a rebranded form of FC.
Even if it’s not, there is still reason to be skeptical of it. One scientist explained this, as well as why he wouldn’t study RPM himself:
“I could not personally justify spending time, public money and participant goodwill exploring an approach which I do not think has a sound theoretical basis. If psychology teaches us anything, it is that the human mind is powerfully self-deceptive. The desire to believe that non-speaking individuals simply need their communication to be unlocked is strong and I fear this leads good-hearted professionals to seek out the hidden messages they feel are captured within.”
Even if you do want to try RPM just to see if it works, remember this: that’s an expensive and time-consuming experiment that might not work. That’s a risk you run.