Typing to Communicate: Tips for Parents Interested in RPM— Just Give it a Go! (Part1)

 

I’m honored to share this informative and personal essay by a brave and generous mother, Susan Finnes. The determination of some mothers to get communication for their autistic children, even when local communication instructors are not available, amazes me. In some cases, people may have easy access to Soma, or other skilled people who teach typing to communicate, like my mom started to do. These teachers can transform lives.

But, what happens to people without access to these teachers, who live far from the opportunity, or who simply cannot afford to pay for lessons? Thankfully, in addition to books, there is now an online forum for parents and YouTube training videos that the author of this essay, Sue Finnes, put together. I think this labor of love that that Sue and her son, Chris, have undertaken is brave and incredible. They are willing to show their mistakes and their successes to hundreds of unknown people. I admire Chris for being willing to let people judge—and Sue, the same.

I am incredibly grateful as an autism advocate that they have created these educational and support networks to help people with autism and their families.

Because it is long, this essay will appear in two parts. In Part 1, Sue shares her journey with Chris into independent letter pointing. In Part 2, which I will post tomorrow, she shares practical tips for those interested in pursuing this with their own children or students.

Thank you again to Sue and Chris.

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Questions I had when I first heard about RPM in 2009 :

What exactly is RPM? How can I learn RPM? Will it work for my child?

I scoured the internet looking for answers, looking for examples and could not find a lot of information. I had seen a short video of Soma (Soma Mukhopadhyay, who developed RPM) a couple of years previously and had formed the opinion that RPM was not for me. I saw her talking quickly, maybe even doing a poem with a child who did not look at all interested. Why on earth would I want to do this with my severely autistic non-verbal child – surely it was more important to focus on speech and how to dress himself?

Christopher was aged 10. His speech had not developed, we had made some progress with getting dressed and we worked mostly on social/interactive play skills. His communication was limited to the use of gestures to show what he wanted (eg. pointed to his bottom for toilet) and to taking us by the hand to lead us to what he wanted. I had done some basic word picture matching using flash cards. I was desperate for Chris to have a communication method – something more than a PECS system (where you have pictures of objects) and something others would be able to understand – so not sign language. I looked again at RPM – I saw a video this time of Soma teaching a child to point using written paper choices and realised that this was something we could possibly work on. I experimented – using a well-read Teletubbies book – asking what did the Teletubbies spill ?– tubby custard or water? I ‘m ashamed to say now that I was surprised when Chris chose the correct answers – you will see me smiling on this clip from Oct 2009 https://youtu.be/ajDvQEUBgqE . I thought I’d always believed and accepted him , but now we were moving onto something with huge potential ! Here is another short clip November 2009 – you will see that I quickly moved on from Teletubby books to the history of Bonfire night https://youtu.be/BIBn67V608Y . Please note that my techniques here were not very good !

From that moment on I exposed Chris to more age appropriate topics and began to talk to him more about everything –and started WRITING EVERYTHING DOWN assuming that he understood. We worked on getting him to point to the written choices. We took his interests /motivations and expanded them – bringing him interesting information eg singing twinkle twinkle lead to talking about the solar system. I did not think that Chris would cope with a long flight to the USA to see Soma , but found out about the Barrett family in the UK whose daughter Heathar had achieved success with Facilitated Communication, so I enlisted their help and early in 2010 we began to learn how to support Chris to type. I remember them telling me that I had to believe that Chris had been like a sponge taking everything in all these years – but with no means of showing us. It took MANY MONTHS of daily practise before we were able to get anything from him, which made sense, but when we did, it showed me how intelligent he was. I and Chris’s other helpers practised with him every single day and we were eventually giving light elbow support while he typed.

Fast forward to 2011 – I heard that Soma was in the UK and managed to get some sessions. I didn’t fully understand RPM – i thought i’d just take the good bits and adapt it. This was another WOW moment for me – the types of lessons Soma presented were way more advanced than we had been doing . Even though I saw Chris pointing independently with the stencils with Soma , I decided that I wanted to stick with FC for longer answers and would do written choices for other questions. Again we stepped up to the challenge – I started to work my way through a Biology student workbook, another helper did Physics, another Maths and Poetry. We made good progress -I realised that Chris was capable of learning , and was finding it interesting and stimulating. We were able to see Soma again in 2012 – this time I and Chris’s team were fully prepared ! We all studied Soma’s red book beforehand and we analysed in detail what she was doing in her sessions .

The penny dropped ! This method of teaching was not just about presenting information and checking student understanding –the stimulating information was the tool which enabled you to engage the child while working towards the skill of INDEPENDENT pointing/typing . It also enabled you to stimulate thinking and reasoning skills and taught the student how to express his thoughts and opinions. From that moment on we changed from supporting Chris to type , to teaching him the skill of independent pointing – beginning with the stencils.

Chris had at least 3 RPM sessions every day with different tutors. Initially there was lots of prompting – verbal ( eg. ‘up up, , lift your elbows’ ) , directive (eg ‘touch here’) and air prompts ((waving your fingers over the stencil in the direction of the letter). If Chris was struggling to get a letter we also had to motor model the movement with him – showing him hand over hand ‘this is how you touch the B ‘ (doing it twice hand over hand then immediately asking him to do it himself) ‘now you touch it’. I set up records on my PC – and after every session the tutor would record their notes from the session. We found that the process of writing up notes also helped us to analyse our own sessions – looking to see how much talking we were doing and how many responses we were asking for. Many sessions were filmed and I also set up skypes with Soma to get feedback. Up until 2016 Chris was having a minimum of two RPM sessions a day ,5 days a week . He is currently using the laminated letterboard and we are working on independence by beginning to get him to hold the board himself for a few letters/short words . Here is a short clip to illustrate.. https://youtu.be/vGL5Xb5o2lA

We have incorporated lots of purposeful movement into his programme – physical exercises, dancing, picking up and passing objects etc. I feel that we would have made more progress but have had setbacks with Chris’s health – he developed epilepsy and has frequent seizures which take time to recover from. As he is transitioning to adulthood Chris now also attends a skills centre two days a week and works on motor skills, living skills and independence skills. He is also learning to use the letterboard in different environments and with different people.

 

See you tomorrow for Part 2!

 

Communication Changes Lives- The Poet

I have never met Sami Kadah, nor did I know about him and his poetry exploring his life with autism, until his communication partner, Jeff, wrote to me.

Sami was locked inside with no communication for 23 years and he has been typing for two. It seems he has a lot to say. He says it in poetry form. In his poems, he opens his soul to pour out how autism controls his life. He writes so that each word matters. He is stingy with his words. They each say a lot.

Sami hurts from autism and he is worth reading. Communication changes lives, for sure.

Number 15, by Sami Kadah 

I am superstitious.
I am also religious.

I am smart.
I am also an idiot.

I want help.
I am also helpless.

I want to be independent.
I am also incredibly needy.

I am intentionally thoughtful.
I am also unpredictably impulsive.

I am physically affectionate.
I am also agressive and violent.

I am human.
I am also autistic.

Learning to Communicate Changes Lives, Part II

My book, to my amazement, has impacted lives in many far-flung places. I get letters from all over the world.

I was so happy to read this article from Ireland that more people should read. This isn’t an Irish tale. It’s an autism tale. Once again, a mind and a soul is set free by a letter board. I love how Caoimh (pronounced Keev) was liberated by his persistent mother. I toast all the persistent mothers who don’t give up, from Soma, to my mom, to Caoimh’s mum in Ireland, and all the others. He is one of a measly 40 in Ireland who type, but I know there will be more.

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Learning to Communicate Changes Lives

Here is proof that learning to communicate changes lives. I get thrilled every time I hear how my book has helped others move to communication. Life misunderstood, isolated and silent is not an adequate result for  years of therapy and a parade of specialists who marched through this family’s house.

There are stubborn people who have to listen to us, but they won’t, I’m afraid. But there are open people who have listened.

Things are improving, little by little. Here is one family’s story.

Not Hiking Season

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I miss hiking tremendously. Where I live my winters are mild, my summers like a furnace. All winter and spring I hike or mountain bike every day. I love to be in nature and I love to move on trails looking at the hills and the old oaks. The tall grass turns from green to straw yellow. The coyotes look rangier and thirstier and the snakes start to interfere with the carefree movement of the hiker who now avoids that narrow path lined with foot-high grass.  That stick on the trail or that pile of horse manure over there? Look again– it has a rattle on its tail.

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I prefer not waking up at 6 AM to beat the heat and I’m no fan of rattlesnakes, so I must bide my time waiting for the weather to cool so I can hit the trails once again.

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The Ability to Communicate Creates Autism Advocates

In this video is a friend I have mentioned in previous essays. He has also posted here as a guest author. He is a few years younger than me and we have known each other many years. Our moms are friends and talk to each other about autism (what else?). His name is Dillan Barmache.

Dillan is going to my old high school and he is going to graduate with a diploma in a year. Then he will take on the world.

He has been infected by the same bug I have been — a need to educate and change the way professionals look at our type of autism. I am proud to share his presentation at Stanford University to medical professionals.

His message is identical to mine. Open your minds. Let us out of our prisons.

I’m thrilled to see so many people with autism be heard, be advocates and educate.

Try

Life is hard and sometimes it hurts. It has unexpected hardships and daily challenges. It has joy too, made richer by overcoming the hardships.

This beautiful little clip shows all that. I think it has a great messsage we forget too often.

You’ve got to try.

The only thing that’s in my way is me.

 

1- My New Book

I am a bit ashamed to realize that I haven’t written anything in my blog since January. To be fair to myself, I have been writing another book. I have finally completed my first draft and hopefully soon I can let you know more about it. I think this book will be more accessible for people who know nothing about autism but it will also be interesting for those who live it every day.

Writing a book is a big undertaking. My typing is slow but I eventually complete what I start. I am eager to let you know more about it and will in the near future. I thank you all for your support and patience with my long silences over the last two years.

The Brain that Changes Itself

I watched an intriguing documentary available on Amazon Prime called The Brain that Changes Itself. It is a film based on a book by the same name written by Norman Doidge. I recommend both. They address the developing area of study in neurology of neuroplasticity. This is an important development because for too long scientists have assumed that the brain was fixed in its wiring and that certain conditions were permanent. The film shows how some innovative neuro-scientists have discovered that this is not the case. They show how, with the proper training, some people with severe challenges have literally rewired their neural pathways  and overcome incredible things. They call this neuroplasticity because the person’s brain developed new neural pathways when those pathways biologically intended for a particular function were damaged beyond use. This alternate neural highway gained in competence and ultimately adapted to function normally. One scientist compared it to being stuck in traffic on the main highway, not moving, or taking an alternate side route that, slow at first,ultimately developed over time into a new super highway.

One scientist described his belief that autism is caused by an excess of neuroplasticity. He works at trying to reduce the overload of information that enters the brain of people with autism and creates in them behavioral loops. I found the film fascinating and hopeful because it emphasizes that the brain remains plastic throughout adulthood. I encourage you to watch it. I’m interested in your impressions.

 

Autism in France

The post you will read by guest bloggers, Laurence Le Blet and Karen Hatungimana, and a linked essay by Nicolas Joncour, are about the situation for nonverbal autistic people in France currently. I was unpleasantly surprised to learn how behind France is in educating people who have autism or in supporting children and families. I have many complaints about the system here in my own community but I know that I have been very lucky too. While an unwelcoming school or an incompetent aide has been part of my experience and has negatively impacted me, it has not been my entire experience. The opportunities I have been given to get a normal education, to have a trained aide with me in school, to have the chance to get a college degree and even to become an advocate for people with autism has been a blessing I cannot take for granted. It is time to change the paradigm about autism in France.

“The Right to an Education”, Article Typed by Non-Verbal Autistic Piano Student with Dyspraxia


Guest Post

by Laurence Le Blet and Karen Hatungimana

The situation in France for autistic people has progressed very little for many years. The professional orientation of case-managing organizations, medical-social institutions and specialist doctors is still largely psychoanalytic. The National Health Authority, (HAS), does not recommend psychoanalysis, and specifically condemns the “ le packing” treatment (in which a patient, wearing only underclothes, or naked in the case of small children, is wrapped in towels and soaked in cold water for the stated goal of enabling the child to rid himself of “pathological defense mechanisms.”

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Despite these recommendations, these treatments remain widely present and the national institutions have not caught up with new recommendations for autism treatment. These archaic and outmoded approaches are found in all institutions: justice, health, schools and in society in general. In fact, societal ignorance regarding autism is so pervasive that reports made on parents and subsequent social placements are many; children are always at risk of being removed from their parents custody.

Although autism has been officially recognized as a disability since 1996, the training of nurses and special educators is still mostly based on psychoanalysis and autism is widely seen as a psychosis. Consequently, children with autism are not encouraged to attend regular schools with their same age peers. Despite the legislative Act of 11 February 2005 on Equal Rights and Opportunities, Participation and Citizenship of Persons with Disabilities, the educational situation for autistic children has barely changed. Only 20% of autistic people are enrolled in regular schools, mostly not full time, and parents have to fight for their children to be and remain in ordinary primary school. Most autistic kids are referred to medical educational institutes or day care hospitals at a very early age (from kindergarten), where the right to schooling and the ability to participate in society is limited. Medical-educational institutes and day hospitals are supervised by the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Health )

Another factor negatively affecting the ability of autistic children to attend regular school is due to the fact that many children do not have the necessary trained support. Children may wait a long time to obtain a personal assistant and until then, must remain at home. However, many assistants are not adequately trained nor do they have a good understanding about autism. Additionally, most schoolteachers believe that students with autism suffer when they attend a regular school and they believe the child should be removed from the school and referred to specialized institutions. When parents are not well informed of their child’s potential to learn, as well as their basic rights, (and most of the parents are not), they are pressured to enroll their kids in medical-social institutes. Those parents who believe in their kid’s potential and capabilities are accused of making their child suffer in a regular school, or are told that his presence in a regular school makes the teacher and other students suffer. Thus inclusion is strongly discouraged. There have been a few lawsuits by parents, however this is rare.

There is a lack of understanding of integration and inclusion concepts. Parents of children with autism who strive for inclusion have to overcome innumerable obstacles including: delayed or obsolete diagnosis, absence of proper care advice, fighting for financial support, and most significantly, the permanent anxiety of the psychiatric hospitalization of their children after their death because nobody would be there anymore to fight for them.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNO) has issued its conclusions on the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Here is an excerpt:

The Committee urges the State party to take immediate steps to ensure that the rights of children with autism, , And that these programs are in conformity with the recommendations of the High Authority are authorized and reimbursed. The State party should also ensure that children with autism are not subjected to forced institutionalization or administrative placement and that the parents are no longer subjected to reprisals when refusing the institutionalization of their children. “

In France, despite there being laws and recommendations for good autism treatment, most are not widely known and they are not consistently implemented throughout society. Money that is designated to medical-social institutions would be better applied to education. Inclusion should be effective throughout the entire life of a person with autism.

France ‘s motto « liberté , egalité , fraternité »  should be for all.

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