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Parents of Autistic Children Are Urging Schools to Allow Controversial Communication Techniques

In a science class at Lakelands Park Middle School, 13-year-old Mike Keller sat between his professional aide and his science partner during a lesson about how force affects balance. The Montgomery County teen, who has autism, stood up a few times in a burst of energy and once walked out of the room. But with some redirection from his aide, he appeared to focus on a series of questions that his teacher posted on the whiteboard. 

His teacher asked him an easy yes-or-no question at one point, and as an aide held a keyboard in front of him, Mike typed the word “Yes” on the iPad, followed by a touch of sarcasm: “Duh.”

Mike is not able to speak. He points at letters on a laminated alphabet board or types on a keyboard that an aide holds. Nationally, most students who can’t talk are in self-contained classrooms or autism programs or, like Mike used to be, in a separate school for students with severe disabilities.

But five years ago, Mike and his mother traveled to Texas to explore a novel communication technique called Rapid Prompting Method that led to what his family describes as a breakthrough. About a year later, he joined a new pilot program in Montgomery County Public Schools for autistic students who rely on keyboards and communication partners.

Montgomery County is unusual, if not unique, in creating such a program. Many schools have denied similar requests for programs that allow rapid prompting, or a similar technique known as facilitated communication that was widely discredited by the scientific community in the 1990s.