What Is the Rapid Prompting Method for Treating Autism?

What's the Story About the Rapid Prompting Method for Autism?

Mom reads and points

Soma Mukhopadhyay is an Indian mother who developed a successful technique for teaching and communicating with her autistic son, Tito. Tito, now an adult, is still profoundly autistic -- but has also developed talents as a poet, writer and teacher. How does this method work? Is it worth trying?

In 2003, Soma Mukhopadhyay and her son Tito were featured on CBS 60 Minutes II exploring her unique approach to autism therapy.

In 2008, CNN ran a similar program. Called The Rapid Prompting Method, it involved constant, fast-paced questioning, prodding, and engaging, combined with the use of a low-tech alphabet board for spelled communication. According to the show -- and to Soma -- this method allowed Tito, for the first time, to truly communicate his thoughts and ideas. Experts theorizing about Soma's success suggest that perhaps the pace of Soma's interventions interferes with autistic self-stimulation and enforces focus on the larger world.

This show, and another on PBS, explained how Portia Iversen learned of Soma's work and contacted her in hopes that Soma could help Iversen's autistic son, Dov. Iversen is the wife of producer Jonathan Shestack; together, the couple founded a research foundation called Cure Autism Now (now a part of Autism Speaks). Iversen later came out with a book called Strange Son, which describes Soma's techniques and states that RPM and "pointing" (to a spelling board) allowed Dov to begin communicating for the first time in complex, intellectual sentences.

Since the publication of Strange Son, Soma and Portia have parted ways, but RPM has grown in popularity as a result of Soma's organization (Helping Autism Through Learning and Outreach, or HALO) and Portia's website. According to HALO's FAQs:

  • In the Rapid Prompting Method, the teacher (Soma) matches her pace to the student's speed of self-stimulatory behavior, while continually speaking and requesting student responses, in order to keep the student on task and focused on the lesson at hand. In addition, Soma adjusts subject matter to stimulate the desired side of the brain. Her teaching style is respectful and conversational, as she speaks to her students with the confidence that they are capable of learning and responding to answer her questions.

    Soma says that her work with clients in her Austin, Texas, office allows them to self-regulate, make their own choices among options, and even communicate when prompted to do so using the alphabet board. Soma now offers parent programs and trainings, and Portia now offers a "pointing" manual on her website.

    RPM and pointing carry no risks (except the risks associated with wasting time and money). On the other hand, they are not backed by proper research. The HALO website itself contains no research section, though it does contain a link to a single observational study conducted in 2012.

    In 2014, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services Autism and other Developmental Disabilities, for a second time, stated that there was insufficient research to support the therapy. Only two papers had been published which focused on RPM, and: "Neither of these papers were empirical research studies examining the effectiveness of Rapid Prompting."

    Because of a dearth of research, parents who travel to Austin for Soma's services do so on the basis of anecdotal evidence and hope -- and at considerable expense.

    It is, however, possible to start RPM and "pointing" on your own, by working from manuals, videos and instructions provided on the HALO and Strange Son websites.


    Inteview with Portia Iversen, January 2007

    Helping Autism Through Learning and Outreach (HALO) Website

    Strange Son Website

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