For outside observers, possibly the biggest problem with Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) and Spelling to Communicate (S2C) is that practitioners unanimously resist validity testing. This, quite naturally, raises questions. Why is not one single practitioner or family member concerned and/or curious enough about authorship and communication rights to seek out rigorous authorship testing—even with neutral investigators they don’t consider antagonistic? Why is not one single RPMed/S2Ced typer interested in proving definitively to the general public that it’s really him/her/them typing?
Such refusals, of course, have blocked both the implementation and the publication of rigorous authorship tests, leaving the world with no peer-reviewed evidence that might validate or invalidate a methodology whose stakes, when it comes to the communication rights of some of the most vulnerable people on earth, could not be higher.
But while no authorship tests of RPM/S2C have appeared in peer-reviewed journals, a half dozen such tests have been described in other publications, including some that are FC-friendly. The earliest examples appear in Portia Iversen’s 2007 pro-RPM memoir Strange Son.
Iversen, in the course of the last decade, has more or less disappeared from the autism scene. Rumor has it that she no longer uses RPM (or what she subsequently called “intentional pointing”) with her non-speaking autistic son. But Iversen is the person most responsible for introducing RPM to the U.S. (via its founder, Soma Mukhopadhyay) and for promoting it around the country (see Janyce’s recent post). And while Strange Son, written as it is by someone desperate to believe that RPM has unlocked her child’s “intact mind”, is highly unreliable when reporting on purported evidence for RPM, it is much more reliable when it (perhaps unwittingly) reports on evidence against it.
The essence of FC/RPM/S2C authorship tests are questions whose answers are unknown to the facilitator but known to the facilitated person (assuming that the facilitated person is operating at linguistic and cognitive levels consistent with their facilitated output). An authorship tester might, for example, ask about something that the facilitated person experienced while the facilitator wasn’t around. These sorts of questions contrast with questions about public facts (current events, history, geography): questions whose answers the facilitator, depending on her education, may already know.
One example of an authorship test failure, then, is when the facilitated person is able to type out answers to general factual questions, but not to questions about what happened during parts of the facilitated person’s day that the facilitator didn’t also experience. And that, indeed, is exactly what we see happening with Iversen’s son Dov.
Message passing failure, example 1:
When it came to facts, responses came easily for him. But personal communication was a different story. Dov often couldn’t answer simple questions accurately about what had happened to him, such as whether a therapist had worked with him at school or if there’d been a birthday party, or if he and Maria had stopped at McDonald’s on their way home (p. 322).
Other potential message-passing questions are those that inquire about a desire that the facilitated person has that (1) is something the facilitator isn’t able to deduce from prior behavior and (2) can be verified by the person’s subsequent behavior. Here, too, message passing fails.
Message passing failure, example 2:
Despite being able to do math and answer academic questions, and at times being able to tell us what he was thinking or feeling, when I asked Dov what he wanted to eat for breakfast, he might type out eggs and then refuse eggs, then type out pancakes and refuse pancakes. Even a response of yes or no was not always reliable. (p. 323)
Iversen also reports on what amounts to similar message passing failures by RPM founder Soma Mukhopadhyay and her son Tito.
Message passing failure, example 3:
One day some years back, when no one believed in Tito’s intelligence and the whole world seemed against them, R.G. [Tito’s father] took Tito out for lunch and when they returned, Soma asked Tito what he had eaten. Later she learned from R.G. that Tito had given her the wrong answer—a food he had eaten in the past but not with his father that day. This alarmed Soma deeply. People already doubted her son and thought she was crazy. If Tito couldn’t answer a simple question like what he’d had for lunch correctly, there could be no hope of convincing anyone of the authenticity of his communication. (p. 123)
Soma then decided that she should only ask questions that she could be sure Tito was answering correctly—a policy that she extends to all her RPMed students and that effectively rules out message passing tests.
But researchers at Michael Merzenich’s lab at UCSF, apparently unaware of Soma’s policy, took it upon themselves to run Tito through a message-passing test of their own. They “read him a story with Soma out of the room”. And, as Iversen reports, “He couldn’t answer a single question about it.”
Message passing failure, example 4:
Tito could not tell them what the story was about at all, even when Soma prompted him. And when they gave Tito hints like “What color were the cat’s pajamas,” he gave answers that were technically correct but not specific, like “A color of the rainbow.”
I decided to see if I could get Tito to answer anything at all about the story. What kind of story was it? What category did it fall under? Was it a newspaper article, a poem, a short story? Tito could not answer. I stepped out into the hall with Tito and Soma and explained that if Tito was kidding around and really knew the answers, he should say so because this was important. I asked Tito if he understood and he said yes. But still, he could answer nothing.
Tito’s inability to answer specific questions about a story that his facilitator had not read contrasts with his ability to answer general questions about philosophy, a topic where his facilitator could easily be the one dreaming up the responses (despite Iversen’s inability to detect how she might have cued them):
I recalled when we were at Courchesne’s lab and I’d watched in fascination as Bill Hirstein and Tito carried on a lengthy conversation about philosophy. I remembered noticing how Soma was sitting across the room. Soma would urge Tito on, with abrupt verbal prompts and sweeping gestures. But there was no way she could have signaled Tito to produce the kind of complex, unpredictable, naturalistic conversation he had with Bill Hirstein that day. So why couldn’t Tito answer a single question about a simple story that had been read to him now? (p. 245)
In reporting on and musing about these failures of RPM, Iversen shows an honesty and open-mindedness that has quickly disappeared. Only one RPM parent has ever agreed to cooperate with researchers in rigorous authorship testing whose results would be published in an academic journal. The resulting study, discussed in a 2020 article in Spectrum News, is yet another example of message passing failure.
Message passing failure, example 5: The study “found evidence for facilitator influence” and “no evidence that [the rapid prompting method] is a valid form of communication.”
This study, as Spectrum News reports, was never actually published—except in summary form in Spectrum News. Shortly after it passed peer review at the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, the pro-FC organization United for Communication Choice got involved. The parent filed an ethics complaint with the university involved (the University of Georgia) alleging that, as Spectrum News reports, “her identity had been compromised because she had told others in the rapid prompting community that she was participating, and her son turned out to be the study’s sole participant.” Ultimately, proponents succeeded in blocking publication, though not because of this allegation. Rather, the university “cited various minor lapses, including an expired ethics certification for one of the study’s researchers.”
S2C, a derivative of RPM whose proponents have embraced the same “don’t test” mentality, has also had its case of published message-passing failure. You can read about it in a memorandum filed in September, 2022 by a U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The memorandum is for a judgment in a lawsuit in which S2C parents sued the Lower Merion, PA school district for not hiring a trained “communication partner” to use S2C with their son (A.L.) in academic settings. The document recounts, among other things, what happened when three of the child’s teachers visited the child’s S2C clinic to observe him being facilitated.
Message passing failure, example 6:
Ms. Van Horn [one of the teachers] explained that she prepared questions for the session based on a mid-term being administered in A.L.’s U.S. history class. A.L. and his communication partner began working through the short-answer and multiple-choice questions on the letterboard, but “he wasn’t getting the correct answers” and seemed “flubbled”—i.e., he seemed anxious responding to the questions. A.L.’s communication partner asked for an answer key, and “[t]hen the answers were coming out correctly.” Ms. Van Horn was troubled by what she observed, particularly by the fact that A.L.’s behavior and the communication partner’s demeanor changed once the communication partner knew the correct answers.
In other words, S2C failed until the facilitator knew the answers.
Noting that “the most compelling pieces of evidence are the District’s personnel’s first-hand observations of A.L. using S2C,” the judge ruled against the parents.
A similar sort of message passing failure appears in another published account, this one attributed to an RPM user,
Message passing failure, example 7:
I have only had one instance of someone in an authority role disbelieving that I was not being prompted. She taught algebra, and had a hard time understanding why my paraeducator’s fear of math would impact my ability to answer questions. But it did, because the letterboarding experience is so reliant on a positive relationship between the speller and their communication partner. I rely on that person to stay calm and regulated so that they support me in being that way too. If someone is freaking out or is upset because their anxiety is revving up, it really affects my own anxiety level, and I have a hard time focusing.
In that math class, we found an easy solution: another para swapped in for algebra, and it was great because she was a math geek and could think up ways to ask me questions which could be answered with a letterboard that she embellished with calculus symbols. After the teacher saw me getting assignments done with the other para, she stopped wondering about my abilities and started giving me harder questions.
In other words, RPM failed when the facilitator didn’t know the answers to the algebra problems.
Tellingly, this account concludes with:
How someone can deny that I am competent and spelling on my own is bewildering to me.
Clearly, for those involved in producing this piece, the circumstances are no more damning than the message-passing failures recounted by Iversen were for her.
I can’t help wondering, however, whether the authorship failures in Strange Son, and the seeds of doubt they may have sown in Iversen’s mind long ago, are one reason why Iversen, the person who introduced Soma to this country, may have eventually abandoned RPM, “intentional pointing”, et al. At the very least, Iversen found those authorship failures concerning enough to share them with her readers and wonder out loud about them. It would be nice if today’s proponents would consider following in those footsteps.
Iversen, Portia. (2006). Strange Son: Two Mothers, Two Sons, and the Quest to Unlock the Hidden World of Autism. Riverhead.
How one communication tool may fail some autistic people