An interview with Soma Mukhopadhyay, pioneer of rapid prompting method (RPM)

Soma Mukhopadhyay is the creator of rapid prompting method (RPM). She developed RPM to help her son, Tito, an Autistic nonspeaker, communicate when multiple professionals told her that he would never be able to do so. She is currently the Executive Director of Education for HALO RPM (Helping Autism through Learning & Outreach) in Austin, TX.

HALO provides the services of Soma®RPM (Soma-Rapid Prompting Method), an academic program leading towards communication, the expression of reasoning and understanding, more reliable motor skills, and greater sensory tolerance. Soma works with autistics (speakers and nonspeakers) and people with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and diagnoses that involve impaired motor function.

Soma and Tito were sponsored to come to the United States by Cure Autism Now (CAN), a nonprofit that later folded into Autism Speaks. CAN wanted Soma to teach the children of their parent members RPM, and she did. The founder of CAN, Portia Iverson, left the organization and focused on getting to know her son, Dov, since he had access to communication and helping others to have access to communication.

Since then, Soma and the instructors she trained have taught thousands of nonspeaking and minimally-speaking disabled children and adults from all over the world. She provides clinics and camps at her Austin, TX, organization and can often be found providing advice in the Facebook group, Unlocking Voices – Using RPM.

RPM grew rapidly in popularity until aggressive suppression efforts, including direct bullying of children, parents, and academic institutions, from the applied behavior analysis (ABA) industry began to stall as ABA therapy established a monopoly on all aspects of the narrative around autism. Later, the same small but aggressive group of behaviorists would convince the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), through backdoor channels and without the input of the speech and language pathologists who were members, to issue a statement against RPM, citing that the method was not “evidence based.”

Still, despite oppressive opposition, Soma and those trained in the method continue to practice full time, bringing access to communication— and hope— to many.

Soma Mukhopadhyay: an interview on RPM

Me: How exactly did you know that your son, Tito, could understand so much more than what other people believed he could understand?

Soma: I never saw Tito as a label. In fact, I do not see the label in anyone. I knew he could memorize roads and words of poetry very early on. If I said any incorrect word, (which I often did on purpose to get a reaction,) he would react with an alerting vocal sound. But he showed selective interest and displayed his learning towards those selections.

I did not know about the therapies that were around, and I am glad that I did not know; otherwise, I would have depended on them. I began to teach him the motor movement of pointing. For example, if I was cooking and there would be potatoes or cabbages around, I would show him: this is the POTATO and this is how we point at it. That is a CABBAGE.

Now let’s learn how to point at it. This is how we write the letter P… P is the first letter of the word Potato. I would write it in front of him to stimulate his visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning channels to get his full attention. And …, this is letter C. I would write it that, also.

Then, on a separate page, I would draw wiggly woggly shapes and put the letter P and the letter C. And ask him: Letter P and C are lost in the land of wiggly woggly. Can you find them? This way, I would story a problem to let him see everything through a story. There was no question of believing or doubting. There was just my instinct that laid out a little syllabus for him.

Teaching Them To Help Themselves

Terra: What was the process that led you to the formation of RPM? What did you notice that led you to realize that moving spelling to large stencils and gross motor movements would help autistic nonspeakers?

Soma: There are many students who talk. But RPM began with students who did not speak. The process was the same with little modifications. Modifications are based on the student’s individual: auditory, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic learning channels. There are 4 objectives in a session: Cognitive, Skill, Tolerance, and Communication.

I don’t exactly feel like I am helping. It’s like teaching them to help themselves: supervising their kinesthetic abilities from navigating the large letter stencil to a full letter stencil.

Some students may respond better to a rolled letter board and not the stencil. There are others who can step-jump the large letter stencil and navigate the [printed and laminated] letterboard. It all depends on that student’s individual visual and performance tolerance.

Storied Learning

I like to story things myself. It makes everything interesting.

~Soma Mukhopadhyay, on storied learning

Terra: As a mother, I intuited early on that I needed to story learning for my daughter, using puppets, toys, and props and giving lessons a creative storyline– not so much with a plot, but more a situation or problem to solve. She very much loved learning with condiment packages (horseradish sauce, soy sauce, mustard, breakfast salsa, etc.) as characters with robust personalities and expressive voices.

Why do you think many autistic kids respond better to storied learning?

Soma: I like to story things myself. It makes everything interesting. I use the same instinct of story-ing with Tito and my students perhaps as a habit. If I were to teach a typical student, I would still story everything.

Prioritizing The Students

Terra: Every time I read about you, either from reporters, parents, or students, people write that you walk right past the parents and go straight to the learner.

This came from a presentation I watched the other day by Kade Brandhagen:

Why do you focus on the learners over the parents? Why do you think everyone who writes about you is so surprised that you prioritize the learner’s input over the parents’ input?

I sometimes forget that parents are also present in the room.

~Soma Mukhopadhya, on priorities

Soma: I never thought about that. I sometimes forget that parents are also present in the room. I look at the session as a system where the student and I have to work out the engine of the system. So I have to use the right mechanics: select a lesson, see the motor movements of the student to find out where the student needs help, find out the sensory distractions, etc. and build up a working formula for that session.

Beyond AAC For Nonspeakers

Terra: Most people believe that RPM is just pointing to letters on a letterboard, or they call it a form of AAC. But, it’s much more than that. What’s a better way to describe it?

Soma: I would say that the student begins navigating the two-dimensional space of the letterboard then moves on to navigating the environment which is in three dimensions. There will be sensory obstacles.

So along with information learning and communicating his understanding and thoughts, the student also needs a sensory learning plan to work in areas where he needs help.

As I am teaching, I am learning, too.

Recently, I have figured out a way to help the student produce speech. So that’s another area wherein I want to support the students using RPM.

Keeping The Student Engaged

Terra: The behavior industry (ABA) has been critical of RPM since its inception, yet they seem to not have any idea what it’s about. Why do you think they work so hard to discredit you and your students? 

Soma: I have no idea how other therapists think or do. I do not have experience of behavior-oriented intervention, so I cannot explain their thought process. I can just speak for RPM.

Behavior is a kinesthetic activity arising from sensory discomfort. We keep the student engaged in cognitive and sensory learning so that the student can learn to ignore or work through the discomfort.

Dealing With Criticism

Terra: The first time I learned about you was when I saw a video of you working with Philip Reyes, who is (now) an autistic teen nonspeaker.

I was an English teacher for 14 years, and I noticed three things you were doing that were what I had always done— and had been criticized for because it was not “evidence-based.” But, I had success helping students who were years behind with reading comprehension when nothing else had ever worked, and I began to be widely recognized as someone who worked very well with autistic students.

I see criticism as medals, not as scars. Criticism comes with its own expiry date. Beyond a point the criticism – vocabulary gets exhausted and it becomes boring and redundant.

-Soma Mukhopadhyay, on criticism

Soma: Criticism is the choice to cover a failure. When other therapists criticize, it gives me feedback that something we are doing is correct which is creating this motivation to criticize.

I see criticism as medals, not as scars. Criticism comes with its own expiry date. Beyond a point the criticism – vocabulary gets exhausted and it becomes boring and redundant.

Rhythm Informs and Guides

Every natural phenomenon works at a rhythm. Our running feet to heartbeat to the seasons to the returning of a comet.

~Soma Mukhopadhyay, on rhythm

Terra: First, I noticed that you taught with a rhythm. Your approach is sing-song and your cadence could be set to a metronome. I did that as a classroom teacher. This is also how I was able to connect with my daughter. I noticed that I could do things to an exact rhythm, and it helped her to focus and stay present to tolerate things like brushing her teeth.

Is that a part of RPM, or is that just something that you do instinctually? Do you teach RPM instructors to teach to a rhythm?

Soma: The state-ask paradigm that we do… creates this seesaw effect with the teacher performance–student performance mathematical divide.

Every natural phenomenon works at a rhythm. Our running feet to heartbeat to the seasons to the returning of a comet. It also prepares the student to be alert: the teacher’s turn is now, next is my turn to perform.

Deconstructing Information

Terra: Another thing I noticed was that you presented new information whole, then deconstructed it. This is something I’ve always done intuitively because it is how I best process new information.

As a teacher, I didn’t need my learners to understand the first time, just to intake. Then, I would guide the learners through processing that information by deconstructing it.

I have noticed that this approach works well for many autistic learners, like myself. We can often hold a lot of information in our working memory, but we can’t always process and store it where it needs to go in our minds. When we have more information than we can process, this leads to dysregulation and difficulty staying focused or processing information into long-term memory.

This process of coding information seems to be a lot more automatic— but much less thorough— for many non-autistic people.

I noticed that you take a similar approach. For example, you would write a whole word and spell it out loud as you wrote it; however, you used the phonetic breakdown to process it after you’d already given them the whole word, “P is for pilgrim, i is for il-grim, l is for l-grim, g is for grim, etc.”

Soma: Yes, I do the same with my last name. When someone is struggling, I begin: “Look here… ‘M’ for ‘Mukhopadhyay’
Then, ‘U’ for ‘Ukhopadhyay’
‘K’ for ‘Khopadhyay’
‘H’ for ‘Hopadhyay’…”

Then, by the time I am at letter O of my last name, everyone understands it, or, who knows, memorizes it lest I do the whole thing! Works great.

Since that works, I do the same at my session.

(Letter) Size Matters

Terra: Lastly, I noticed the large letterboards in the early stages. Most of my students didn’t have the same motor planning issues as many of your students, but I always used much larger font and put more space between lines on any learning materials I had for readers who expressed that they hated reading or “just couldn’t get it.”

I did this because I didn’t really learn to read until 5th grade, despite being an advanced speller and loving words. I found a novel with large print in my school library, and this one was relatively easy to read. By the end of the book, I was cruising through the pages.

Do you use large stencils solely because they’re bigger targets for people with motor planning difficulties, or does it also have a visual benefit that is important for many autistic learners?

Soma: Large stencils do 3 things:

1. It helps a visually-overwhelmed student to visually focus on fewer letter choices without stress.

2. It helps a student whose accuracy with a 26-letter stencil is yet to grow and they’re yet develop that ability. It gives them the opportunity to practice spelling and grow the spelling stamina.

3. It minimizes the student’s randomness of touching letters by restricting the number of letters and narrowing the selection.

Words of Wisdom

Me: Were there any times that a student typed something unexpected, hilarious, or even awkward that you’ll never forget?

Soma: Many times. All students showed their awareness towards politics, to psychology, to sibling gossip, to philosophy. Many showed curiosity towards my outfit and my forehead dot. Students are funny, serious, stressed, and concerned.

Me: What was the most unconventional approach you’ve tried, when working with a student, that actually worked?

Soma: Many times, I work through the car window as the student response is better inside the car because the student feels a tactile security inside the car more than in my session room.

Me: What advice do you have for parents who are wondering if RPM is right for their child?

Soma: I usually do not advise. Most of them try out different therapies and eventually begin RPM anyway when the scope of other therapies stop.

Me: What advice do you have for parents about how to get to know and understand their children?

Soma: Trust and understanding of an autistic child’s capability is a feeling that must emerge within the parent. For a parent who has been confused by traditional or mainstream mindsets about the potential of their children, my telling or not telling them won’t matter anyway. They will continue to doubt.

Reflections

Though my interview had concluded, I spent several days interacting with and processing Soma’s words. I had spent years thinking of her, watching videos and reading about her, and reading her son Tito’s books.

I expected this interview– if I ever had the opportunity– to be wonderful. I expected myself to be nervous and awkward.

Things went as expected.

Soma had something to teach the world about autistic children, and the world wasn’t trying to listen. Soma doesn’t bother herself with that, though. She’s too busy working with the people who do listen. Her belief in other people’s autonomy is resonant in every word she communicates.

Without Soma and her son, Tito, thousands of autistic people–children and adults– would be without reliable communication because no one expected they had the capacity. For that, I will forever be grateful. My world and the world of so many people I love has been illuminated and broadened by their tenacity, their courage, their whimsy, and their intuition.

What are Soma Mukhopadhyay’s secrets?

Soma doesn’t have secrets. What many had called a “miracle” or “magic” were those things, but not for the reasons people believed.

Soma started with a belief in her son’s competence when everyone told everything he would never do, and then she tried things. She’s still trying things three decades later, as can be seen in action on her organization’s Facebook page.

She’s always finding ways to understand the sensory mechanisms driving behaviors considered “non-functional” and looking for ways to help her learners remain sensorily and emotionally regulated.

Her learners are co-conspirators, troubleshooting a formula to help wrangle their uncooperative bodies and eyes so that they can reach the goal they both want: communication.

These children and adults have been labeled as “severely” autistic, r*tarded, and “having the intelligence of a baby.”

But labels don’t matter to Soma. The parents are not her focus. She believes her students deserve to be known and understood, to be educated, to have their competence presumed, to make choices about their education, and to have their sensory regulation needs met. She believes in trying things and learning and improving her approach indefinitely. She believes in meeting the students where they are, even if it’s mid-meltdown in the parking lot.

For many autistic people, having their basic competence, dignity, and sensory needs respected and honored does seem like a miracle.

Special thanks to Kate Jones of Kate Jones Illustration (Facebook) and DissentByDesign (Instagram) for the beautiful illustration of Soma.

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One Response

  1. My synesthetic self loves the holistic and holographic quality of Tito’s writing. His poetry speaks to me in layers of experience, memory, sensory perception, metaphysical questioning, and the gritty stuff of emotions.

    Soma’s legacy is and shall be a boon to this world, as more and more individuals are facilitated in finding and using their (true and not dependent upon the spoken word) voices. I was so happy to learn, Terra Vance, that you were going to be interviewing her!! Several people I know, personally, have benefitted from her work and/or her influence. I am just overjoyed that more people will know about Soma and RPM and perhaps that shall open doors for more nonspeakers, everywhere.

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