Our week in Green Bay for RPM training turned into something bigger than I imagined. I can’t speak for the girls but for me so much of it seemed like a struggle – from Rhema’s health issues to even just getting there. I received daily(!) notes of encouragement that helped me put one tired foot in front of another. I/we feel humbled, undeserving and grateful to be on the receiving end of such support and prayer. Thank you, thank you.
I’m not going to spend time here explaining the methodology and theories behind Rapid Prompting Method (for more information on Soma RPM – click here and here ), but I would like to share some of my observations and impressions after seeing it in practice with Rhema.
Presume competence. It’s something you hear a lot in the autism world, and until this week I don’t think I really grasped it. Douglas Bliken describes presuming competence as a framework that says “…approach each child as wanting to be fully included, wanting acceptance and appreciation, wanting to learn, wanting to be heard, wanting to contribute. Assume that a child has intellectual ability, provide opportunities to be exposed to learning, assume the child wants to learn and assert him or herself in the world.” I’ve realized that I still have much to learn when it comes to seeing and understanding my daughter. I always try to dream big for her and yet in the same breath I underestimate her.
At RPM camp, Rhema’s teacher Erika taught her grade level material. Rhema was taught grade level material. (Yes, I said that twice). I learned along with her as she received lessons in weather, continents, bones, the polar habitat, William Penn and the Quakers, etc. The same child who has not reliably counted to ten in her life worked on subtraction and addition and carrying-the-one and word problems and fractions. Fractions, y’all. Hope said, “Hey, I haven’t even learned fractions yet!”
Watching my girl – the one who has the expressive language of a 1-year old… the one with bite marks covering her arms… the one who has never attended a typical school or sat in a typical classroom… the one who needs help with every part of her day… the one who cannot complete any type formalized testing – watching her learn about science and history and math like it ain’t no thing was just about as exhilarating and nerve-wracking and hope-filling as anything I’ve ever experienced. For Rhema as well, I believe.
Well, how can we ever be the same now?
After the sessions I spoke to her and of her differently. I spoke to her as I would any non-autistic person. And I started believing that everything I said was truly understood whether she demonstrated understanding or not. She may not respond in a way I expect or recognize but I am no longer assuming she’s not hearing or comprehending. (I’ve said this for years right here on this blog, but it has taken me so long to really get it.)
Bag of tricks. During her sessions Rhema hummed, rocked, crawled under the table, closed her eyes, hit herself, fought for markers and paper, tried to climb over her teacher, put her fingers in her nose and mouth repeatedly. And yet her teacher continued with the lessons, adapting her ways of engaging Rhema constantly. Never once did she conclude that Rhema was not smart enough to comprehend the material. Instead she believed the onus was on her to creatively find ways to help Rhema focus.
When Rhema was presented with choices, she closed her eyes and would not open them. Erika said, “I know it hurts to look.” And she pretended to write the words on Rhema’s arm with her finger, spelling aloud as she did. When Rhema’s humming grew loud and she seemed to be tuning her teacher out, Erika changed her own voice to a whisper and Rhema softened her humming and seemed to listen better. Other times Erika changed the beat and tempo of her voice. When she felt like Rhema’s mind was racing, Erika spoke very rapidly as if to keep pace, and Rhema responded. When Rhema seemed to be tactile defensive and lacked the motor skills to form a point with her finger, Erika put tape on the paper (sticky side up) and helped shape her hand, and Rhema pointed to the correct answer. When Rhema seemed entirely distracted by her marker, Erica used the marker to draw dust particles and teach the word ‘vapor’, or she would draw a circle, shade a portion of it and teach a lesson on fractions. Erika’s goal was to outpace the stims and the distractions to such a degree that the lesson actually became the stim.
By the end of the week, with a little assistance, Rhema was able to point to letters that spelled out words on a rolled letter board.
Watching Erika reminded me of Rhema’s teachers at home. They are willing to do whatever it takes to help her learn and grow. They work miracles everyday as they come up with innovative ways to teach my girl. They cheer her on when something works. And when it stops working, they find still new ways to guide and teach her. They never stop working, never stop trying, never stop believing.
Favorite color. After days of academic work, Erika asked Rhema about her favorite color. As soon as Erika asked the question my heart began to pound. For so long I’ve wanted to ask Rhema a question like that and have her answer me. Erika presented choices to Rhema and prompted her to select one. For e.g., the choices would be Green, Blue, or Something else. It took quite a while to narrow it down, but in the end Rhema consistently selected ‘Red’, even when asked the question in slightly different ways.
I was dismayed. I was certain her favorite color was yellow. Immediately doubts began to fill my head.
During a break I said to Hope,
“So Rhema said her favorite color is red.”
“Yeah,” she said.
“But I thought her favorite color was yellow. When she was two she would always hoard the yellow Legos.”
“Yeah. I thought her favorite color was yellow or orange because she always eats the yellow and orange candy hearts on Valentine’s Day.” Then Hope said thoughtfully, “But when I was three my favorite color was purple. And then it was pink. And now it’s blue. Now Rhema’s favorite color is red.”
Leave it to the little kid to make it plain.
So I let go of what I thought I knew about Rhema and gave into the joy of realized hope: My daughter shared something with us, something about her, something I’ve always wanted to know. Rhema loves colors, and right now her favorite color is red. (!!!) I know this because she told us.
At the beginning of our trip, Hope wondered “Is it gona be worth it?” Honestly, I think deep down we hoped Rhema would quickly catch on to the RPM method and find her voice. It didn’t exactly happen that way. Instead it seems it will come bit by bit, day by day, on her own perfect timeline. I suspect there will be many setbacks and many gains, but even more belief.
For now, we wait and we work, with more hope than ever.