Category Archives: keyboards

Harder than It Looks: Learning to Type on a Letterboard and Keyboard is a Process

Guest Post

by Susan Finnes, with Christopher Finnes

My son Christopher is now 17. He is non-verbal and outwardly behaves in a way which would lead people to believe he lacked intelligence/understanding. The Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) has enabled Chris to show us, through pointing on a letterboard, that he is a creative and intelligent young man.

Ido has been an inspiration to us – his book particularly helped me to understand and to discuss with my son the issues he faces with his motor control/purposeful movement. When people see students like Ido using his iPad independently it is only natural that they aspire to getting their own children to this stage as quickly as possible. There is often a lack of appreciation of the amount of work that may need to be done before getting to that stage.

People say to me, “Why don’t you just get Chris to type straight onto a laptop?”- if only it was that simple! It is important to understand that the amount of time it will take to develop the pointing/typing skills will vary greatly between students and, as Ido has already explained in his book, the belief of the people who surround the student will also have a huge impact on progress.

I am sharing parts of our journey here primarily to help give some more perspective on this skill building process as, for us, it has taken a long time and is still a work-in- progress: — We first saw Soma in 2011 for six RPM sessions (and have seen her each year since then). Chris started pointing on the 3 large stencils and each day we saw how Soma built his skills through verbal and air prompts until he was able to point on the single A-Z stencil. We were also able to observe other students who were at different stages of RPM – some who had more motor challenges than Chris – some were already using iPads. It was clear that everyone had their own rate of progressing.

These first sessions were all a bit of a whirl wind. At the time it was difficult to fully appreciate exactly what Soma was doing and why – as a parent you find your emotions run high and it is hard to detach yourself and analyze what is happening.

It was hard to replicate Soma’s success at home. Chris was ‘all over the place’ – how had he been able to have a conversation with Soma? I had a small team of people working with Chris and we realized that we needed to first build our own skill levels before we could help him to move forward. How did we do this? – by analyzing and studying the videos of the sessions : how did Soma pass the pencil? What angle was she holding the board at? etc, We transcribed word-by- word Soma’s sessions –looking at how she phrased her questions and how she gave verbal prompts. Then we practised, filming ourselves, writing up our sessions in detail and giving each other feedback – continually setting improvement goals for ourselves.

Our learning never stops – constant analysis needs to happen even now as issues are always coming up e.g. Chris may spend time with his hand wandering around the board before getting to the letter he wants. When this happens we need to work out how to help him with the skill of getting straight to the letter.

One aspect of RPM which I feel is particularly important to appreciate is that it works using academics. Learning the skill of accurate pointing on a letterboard would be exhausting and tedious without a context. The teach/ask part of RPM lessons not only provides intellectual stimulation by giving Chris interesting information but also, when he is giving us ‘known’ responses, we can identify his motor challenges and the issues/skills we need to work on. We present a wide variety of age-appropriate topics – history, biology, physics, poetry, current affairs, art.

We also work on the skill of open communication – beginning with single words and gradually increasing to longer outputs. This is another important point – all of Christopher’s most creative and expressive work has been as a result of an academic lesson. There is a skill to this – we don’t just say, “now how do you feel about that?” We instead explore something related to the lesson and maybe discuss it in the third person eg. ‘if you were living in that era and writing a diary entry what would it say?”

– Once we had built up our skill levels on the stencil it was time to push Chris forward onto the laminated letterboard. This was after six months of practise on the stencils – (three sessions a day) and it was gradual transition – sometimes just a few letters on the laminate. At first we held this vertically and gradually began to tilt it. This process will vary greatly with different students -some need lots of ‘mirroring’ from one board to another, others can transition in a few sessions without a lot of help.

When you find a way to hold the board that works for your child at an angle that suits their ability to point accurately and have open communication it would be easy to stop and think you have achieved your goal. However this will always leave the child reliant on a skilled facilitator – I am always looking to move Chris on to the next skill to enable him to eventually become fully independent.

– So five years into our RPM journey Chris is currently pointing quite confidently on the laminated letterboard when it is held nearly horizontally. He can also point on a QWERTY keyboard which is held at a slight angle. He still needs verbal prompting to ‘keep going’ and his tolerance can vary greatly from day to day (he is also affected by some ongoing health issues).

We are working on his independence by mirroring words to either the laminate or keyboard flat on the table or held by him. I have learnt that it is not a great idea to compare Chris’s progress to others – e.g. some students can easily move from one board to another, some have the ability to ‘match’ so can easily touch a letter on the laminate and then on a keyboard. Chris, on the other hand, has to learn this all through muscle memory so requires continual practice and repetition – and lots of verbal/air prompting. I have helped other students to get started with RPM and learnt that every student is different and will progress at their own rate – so there is no rush.

Over the years we have done lots of skill work outside of the RPM academic sessions. I believe that all of these things also contribute to his improving letterboard skills. Skills have included physical exercises (including participation in Special Olympics events), horse riding, playing games, learning to draw, helping around the house.

Everything we teach is focused on helping Chris to move his body purposefully and independently. Each action has to be broken down into small component parts, explained and motor-modeled so his muscles can learn how the movement ‘feels’. Just to explain further , Chris cannot just imitate an action -I have to physically lift his leg, touch his thigh muscles telling him to engage them to show
him how to step over a hurdle. Then we have to practise, practise, practise and practice until he has the muscle memory to enable him to move onto the next skill – running over the hurdles (he can do this now!). I believe it is possible to teach him anything – but it will take longer than for other people.

In a recent discussion with Chris he wrote, “MANY PEOPLE

Here is a short clip of us discussing skill building in relation to his pointing


How do you feel about using the keyboard/ipad?


What Chris said above I can equally apply to myself. I am constantly learning with him, developing my own skills and know that I still have so much to learn. Some days it seems that the journey is insurmountable – but breaking it into small achievable goals makes it more manageable – one day and one step at a time!

Words from the Parent Panel at Spectrum of Opportunity Conference

Here is another speech from the Spectrum of Opportunity conference at Cal Lutheran University. This is a speech from the parent panel. My good friend’s mother, Barbara Johnson, had the courage to tell her story. Her son was with me in remedial autism class when we were small and no one knew how much was inside. I am happy to say he is at last able to express his thoughts. His story tells parents to not give up, even if your kid has grown to adulthood.

Good afternoon.  My name is Barbara Johnson and I have the
privilege of being the mother of two sons, Chad and Connor Johnson,
both of whom have autism.  My son, Chad, is the focus of my speaking
today however, because he is typing with a keyboard and his IPad
utilizing the Proloquo voice feedback word program for communication
and academics.

I was asked to speak today because Chad basically started typing
meaningful communication and academics at 18 years old. He is now
20.  Chad did began typing earlier with me and with his home therapy
program provided by Verdugo Hills Autism Project using an Alpha
Smart keyboard,  but most of the typing consisted of nouns– usually
what we were having for dinner, or his name, address and phone
number.  He did not progress much from there, because looking back
now I believe we were not emphasizing the typing enough.

Chad had been using PECS most of his time at home and in
school because it seemed to be the only form of communication other
than verbal that appeared to connect with him and what he also
initiated with.  He tried typing and sign language when he was very
young, but these forms of communication at the time did not seem to
register well.  I truly believed they did not make sense to him.

I was informed by the experts, that Chad had severe receptive language
difficulties and that was the reason why he would not always respond
correctly to ABA drills or requests I made of him.  The many books
and articles I researched only backed up this theory.  It was described
to me with the analogy of a radio receiving static, sometimes the
message comes through, and sometimes it doesn’t.  I have never
doubted Chad’s intelligence, and I have always known he is extremely

If only I had realized Chad’s body was not responding to what his
brain was telling him to do, this theory of receptive language problems
would not have shaped how I pursued his education and therapy.
What is so ironic and upsetting is that a great deal of Chad’s learning
had been and continues to be auditory; he has understood everything
all along.  The experts were wrong, I was wrong.

I have dear friends in Tami Barmache and Tracy Kedar who
encouraged me to pursue the typing communication with Chad.  I still
had my doubts because of past experience, but I started to inquire
more.  The pivotal moment for me that changed my perspective was
speaking directly with Ido Kedar.  Chad and Ido have been friends
since they were about 6 years old. They both met in an autism class in
elementary school.   I was talking and crying to Tami and Tracy about
pursuing the typing and I was feeling like I had failed Chad and had him
on the wrong path for years.  Ido approached and typed on a letter
board to me that I was a very good mother to Chad and I had been
given the wrong information, that is was not my fault.  Well, I totally
broke down after that, but it changed things forever for me and for

The meaningful typing initially started at school with the assistance
of Verdugo Hill’s BID, Cheryl Umali and BII, Jim Rodehaver.  Chad
has used the letter board and IPad, but he prefers the IPad because
he can see what he is typing and can also utilize the word bank.  He
required a great deal of support in the beginning, but over time the
support has greatly diminished. Tracy Kedar also worked with Chad using the letter board to teach him to point independently without being touched.  This helped Chad have more ease with the keyboard with less support.  Chad also
receives communication therapy once a week through REACH with
Katie Anawalt and Lindsey Goodrich.

For the first time Chad is fully included in general education in high school.  He is on an alternate curriculum. However, so far he has not had modifications in the academics, only accommodations for his typing and additional time requirements.

Chad was previously in the autism class for almost his entire
education, mainstreaming only for electives or going to a vocational
campus for a job skills program for a couple of periods during the day.
Ever since Chad started the academic general education curriculum
this last August, his writing has greatly improved surprising everyone
around him.

I have tried to encourage other parents to investigate typing for their
children because it has been life changing for our family.  For the first
time, my husband Chris and I are hearing Chad’s voice and his
opinions.  We do not have to guess anymore what he wants, we can
ask him and he can reply.  Many parents have conveyed to me that
Chad, Ido and Dillan are exceptional and their child cannot do the
same.  Every child with autism is exceptional because they are the
bravest souls I have ever met, but Chad, Ido and Dillan are no
different from your children, students, or clients.  Other people with
autism can also be successful using typing communication; they just
have to be exposed to the same opportunities. Most of all, you have to
believe in their intelligence, perceptiveness, understanding of
language, concepts, and emotions. Do not let their physicality get in
the way of you believing in them.

In closing I am going to read something Chad wrote in his government
class that I believe says it all.

A cause that is very important that I think of is the rights of people
without voices.  I have autism and I don’t talk.  That makes it hard for
people to know I can think and learn.  So I and other do not get true
education.  We cannot help ourselves to speak up.  But we
deserve a fair chance to learn real knowledge.

Non-Verbal Autism and iPads

The iPad is really intriguing. Technology is helping me find a place in the world. I have been liberated by my letter board which first gave me a voice. Though I have never been moved or touched when I use it, because someone else holds the letter board up, some people call it facilitation. This bugs me because it is so obvious I communicate myself that it takes bias to cast doubt. But that is the reality of being a non-verbal communicator.
 The old keyboard I had was tough to use. The voice was robotic and the screen small. In more than a year I still resisted it because it was cumbersome. My iPad is working out better. No one holds it. It is propped on a table. No one touches my arm, as always, and the voice is more human. The transition is hard, but I’ll do it.