Author, Teacher and Autism Education Pioneer, Soma Mukhopadhyay
Soma Mukhopadhyay is the mother of the autistic child Tito. When he was 11, Soma brought him from their native India to the UK and then to America. Tito's unprecedented ability to describe what it is like to be autistic is giving scientists new insights into this mysterious neurological malady. Autism is a developmental brain disorder that affects the ability to communicate, form relationships, and respond appropriately to the environment. People with severe autism are all but unreachable and live deeply inward lives the rest of us cannot fathom.
But Soma, a professional teacher and loving mother, was fiercely determined that Tito reach his full potential. She educated him intensively with what she now calls the "rapid prompting mechanism," forcing Tito to keep focused while she taught him to learn to read and write, to listen, and to engage with the physical and social world around him. Soma's labors with Tito not only saved him from a lifetime of psychic inner imprisonment, but offer the same chance to other autistics and their families to form rich relationships.
Soma Mukhopadhyay is very matter of fact about the results that she produces with the work that she does. However, the children and the families that she works with do not take for granted the gift of communication that Soma provides. Soma is a portrait of courage. Her work produces miracles. Her contribution is priceless.
DR: Tell me about your work.
SM: My work began when my son was diagnosed with autism...
The work that I do is a continuation of the work I begun with my son. In addition to working with my son, I have other clients that I also treat.
In working with not only my son, but other children diagnosed with autism, I have become much bigger. I am part of a documentary project on HBO that is about a mother's journey as she looks for a pathway for her son. While she was on this journey, we met and I became involved in the project.
Soma with her son, Tito.
DR: I know that your work has the power to change the course of a child's life and consequently the lives of their families. Can you share with me in detail about the work that you do?
SM: My work begins with education. I teach children how to learn and I empower them to be able to reason. I teach them how to communicate and how to express their ideas and thoughts so that can let people in and let people know who they are.
DR: What is the experience of witnessing a child communicate for the first time like for you?
SM: For me it is no big surprise. I have seen it happen many times. My main focus is how to improve his skills, how to improve his speed and stamina. I have to keep my emotions out of it for the most part so I can concentrate on developing the child. "What is the next step"? That is what I am concerned with.
Many people ask me how I feel but I don't let it get emotional for me. From the very beginning, when a child enters my room, I just know that the child is going to do it.
DR: Is your technique, Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) a technique that you developed or just perfected?
SM: I developed it and you know, I am still perfecting it. I have a lot more to learn and as I work with more children I will be learning much more. I am still a student.
DR: I would imagine that RPM is a technique that you want to catch on because of the amazing results that it produces. Is there an effort underway to get as many people introduced to RPM as possible?
SM: Yes. Many people are replicating it. Replication takes a lot of patience and it begins with offering the children choices and teaching them what to choose and how to choose. For example:
A Mother's Courage: Talking Back to Autism
A MOTHER'S COURAGE: TALKING BACK TO AUTISM An official selection at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival Narrated by Academy AwardÂ® winner Kate Winslet Premiered on HBO on World Autism Awareness Day: Friday, April 2nd.
Imagine not being able to express your thoughts or feelings to anyone. Imagine having to depend on the assistance of others with every mundane task. Imagine living with these limitations despite having an active mind. In A Motherâ€™s Courage: Talking Back to Autism, the mother of an autistic boy from Iceland travels to the U.S. to research new therapies for children with autism, in the hopes of unlocking the autistic mind.
A Mother"s Courage: Talking Back to Autism, a documentary by Academy AwardÂ®-nominated director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, tells the story of Margret, an Icelandic woman whose 10-year-old son Keli is severely autistic. Though she has tried a number of treatments, Margret is at the end of her rope, fearing that Keli may never be self-sufficient or express himself normally. Still, Margret has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge about this mysterious and complex condition. In an effort to better understand her sonâ€™s autism, she travels from Iceland to the United States and Europe, where she meets with scientists and experts in the fields of autism and autism therapies. Along the way, she also connects with families with autistic children, and hears stories of their efforts to help their kids interact with the world around them. Over the course of her journey, Margaret meets Soma Mukhopadhyay, Executive Director of Education of the HALO Clinic in Texas. Soma developed a technique, which she calls the Rapid Prompting Method, and Keli slowly starts to answer basic questions during his first session with Soma. Finally Margret is given a glimmer of hope that her son may be able to communicate on a level she never expected.
A Mother's Courage: Talking Back to Autism. This month on HBO On Demand.
The sky is blue?
What did you hear - The sky is red or blue?
From there you can do a lesson on, let's say, evaporation:
Do you know why this patch of water dried up?
Because it is turning to vapor.
Now that's a new word "vapor". Let's learn it.
How do I spell "vapor"?
So now, when the child sees the water drying, it will be more meaningful for him. Now, for him, it won't be a world that is full of chaos. "Things are happening and I don't understand what is happening", is no longer the case. This is why academic education is very necessary so that the quality of their communication gets better and better. Eventually the child starts applying the learned skill in a bigger context by planning and developing their own goals and objectives and by controlling their own futures.
DR: What are the challenges that you face on a daily basis and how are you able to do this kind of intense work, be a mother of an autistic child and be so successful at both?
SM: If you are asking me about the challenges - every job has challenges. I enjoy my work so much that the challenge becomes a part of the fun. I just have fun working.
When I see a child who is struggling to talk; to aim at the letter "A", that is the joy that I get. When the child tries so hard and successfully spells the word "Cat", that is the joy. Or, when a child that is aggressive suddenly understands that spitting on me or beating me up won't work because we have work to do and that getting angry will not get him anything in the world and so he slowly calms down and starts respecting the method, that is joy.
Those are the different challenges and I get the joy and fun out of it because I see what the child is getting out of it.
I have ten sessions a day so I see ten children a day. Most of my sessions are back to back and so of course sometimes I get physically tired but that is all a part of a day.
DR: As a mother of an autistic child and as somebody who works with autistic children at a time win our culture when it seems like the incidences of autism are growing rapidly, what do you want people to know about children dealing with autism that they may not already know? Is there a misconception that you could dispel?
SM: People do this thing that I call "otherization". As much as possible we keep the otherization away and try to treat and talk to the child as we talk to anyone else.
SM: "This is us and those are others".
I always look beyond the labels. So for me, my son has autism but that doesn't stop me from insisting that he pick up his clothes or clean up his room. I treat him just like I would treat anyone else. If you treat children as if they are separate and different then life becomes a little difficult. We must integrate them into our lives and just teach them that, although they may have autism and although I may be short, we all have to participate in this society together and be useful.
My work in New York focuses on the children developing job skills and the ability to look after themselves and to live a life of more dignity.
Look beyond. Autism? It doesn't matter. You are just one of us.
DR: That is just a good point in general, whether it's about autism or something else. "It doesn't matter. You are just one of us".
Do you feel that you are doing the work that you were born to do?
SM: I don't know. I taught chemistry before and the circumstances brought me to this so, I don't know. But I do know that I am really enjoying what I do.
DR: Which is such a gift - to be able to love what you do...What do you hope that your ultimate contribution will be?
SM: I will be satisfied when I see the children aspiring toward a goal, wanting to do something and not just sitting with sticky pants. I will be satisfied when parents stop crying about "my son having autism", making it a very sad thing or making it the end of the world. They have autism! So what?
I need a farmer to grow my food. I need someone to do my hair. It's like that with autism. An autistic child just needs someone to do certain other things for him.
DR: Another great way to look at life...
SM: We all need each other. The whole Special Education department is dependent on people with autism and other disabilities for their bread and butter. We all need each other and if families of children with autism just stop feeling like its the end of the world, that would be a big deal and a big contribution for me to have made.
DR: It's not the end of the world in other words. It's just another problem with a whole series of solutions. It's another way of living.
SM: That is what my work is about. I really want to grow a team where people can live with each other. I want to grow a community where people have micro businesses that are supported by others and if that could be possible, that would be a big achievement.
DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?
SM: Oh, nothing.
If the children do well that is the most important thing. If things happen for me they just happen. I never even planned to come to the United States. I never had plans to be doing this. I had plans to be a chemistry professor. If things have to happen things will happen. If you sit over there and just expect and hope, you are just wasting good energy.
Helping Autism Through Learning and Outreach
Helping Autism Through Learning and Outreach is a non-profit organization supported by parents and professionals nationwide who are dedicated to the use of SomaÂ® Mukhopadhyay's Rapid Prompting Method for improving academic success and communication for persons with autism and similar disorders.
The goals of HALO include the following:
- Increase the number of professionals using RPM
- To expand opportunities through scholarships that would allow more students access to attend "Camp" or Sessions with Soma at HALO that would otherwise be unable to do so.
- Offer professionals the opportunity to train under Soma through donor funded Internship or Apprentice programs
- Purchase a facility that would enable HALO to provide access to continued education, job coaching, recreation and living skills to individuals with autism and similar conditions
- To expand opportunities to students, parents and professionals information, exposure, instruction and training in Soma's Rapid Prompting Method
Based in Austin, TX, HALO has a clinic where Soma Mukhopadhyay provides 1:1 instructional sessions for students with autism and similar disorders.
For more information on scheduling an appointment, please contact HALO directly at 1-866-465-9595 or email us.
Soma occasionally travels to provide RPM workshops and presentations at various conferences and events around the United States. To inquire about having Soma visit an area outside the U.S. please contact HALO.