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Finding his voice

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LIFE CHANGING Fiacre Ryan (16) has had his life transformed by an American communication method.

Edwin McGreal

An invaluable support for people with autism has changed the life of one Castlebar teenager.
Fiacre Ryan (16) from Snugboro, Castlebar has non-verbal autism. Up to 2013, he had no means of communicating with family, friends or teachers apart from pictures or gestures.
But in September, 2013, the Ryans and five other Mayo families started to use an American technology called the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) letterboard and Fiacre has not looked back since.
“People say he’s a different child,” Fiacre’s mother Carmel told The Mayo News. “The RPM has really settled Fiacre. His behaviour and attitude has improved greatly and he is able to mix with other people much more now. He found it frustrating in the past when he was not able to communicate. It is life changing for us,” added Carmel.
Fiacre is currently a pupil in the ASD Unit in Scoil Muire agus Padraig Secondary School in Swinford and is planning to sit his Junior Certificate exams this summer. That would not have been even imaginable prior to him using RPM, his mother explains.
“Beforehand he knew what he wanted but had no ability to communicate. They said in his national school in Newport it was clear he knew what was going on but could not communicate his wishes.
“Once he started using RPM, Fiacre went from strength to strength. Now we can ask him what does he want to do this evening. Up to this we would have been guessing.
“When Fiacre is in school he can write essays and answer questions. He has control and independence in a way he did not have previously. He has a voice and is able to communicate with us,” said Carmel.
The process started when Mary Cotter from Ballina was researching methods for her son Cian and came across RPM online.
“Mary saw its potential as children were enabled to communicate by pointing on alphabet letter boards, following a series of steps to progress to the final stage of typing on keyboards and iPads with speech apps,” Carmel Ryan explained.
Mary, Carmel and Caroline Galvin invited Erika Anderson of ACE Consulting USA to Mayo to train students and their families. What started with six families has now expanded close to 100 nationwide as the success speaks for itself.
“The results were astonishing as the pupils showed a level of knowledge and competence beyond all expectations, accessing age appropriate lessons and answering questions and spelling accurately on the stencils and letterboards used,” Carmel said.
And hidden talents have emerged. Seosamh O Láimhín (18) from Foxford has an aptitude for higher level Maths, Darragh Kiernan (19) from Manulla has a flair for descriptive writing and Adam Galvin (12) from Swinford has written poetry for President Michael D Higgins, which is framed in Áras an Uachtarain.
“They have finally found their voice after years of silence. The effect on their families and their lives has been life changing, as they can communicate with parents, teachers, siblings and friends and express their thoughts, needs and opinions.They can also enjoy an age appropriate curriculum in their schools and centres,” added Carmel.
The Mayo parents have led the way nationally and now a non-profit parents’ support group, RPM Ireland, has been set up while they hope the method will benefit from state funding in time. For now, the parents resource RPM themselves with the help of fundraising by friends and their local communities.
Fiacre will be one of six people who feature in a new RTÉ One documentary, Autism and Me, next Monday at 9.35pm. His parents, Pat and Carmel, and sisters Rebekah (18) and Alison (14) are interviewed, together with teachers and his Special Needs Assistant in Swinford, as Fiacre’s journey with RPM Letterboard is revealed.

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