GRAND ISLAND, NY - For many with autism, their thoughts and feelings stay locked up inside forever because they are unable to speak. Now, thanks to a breakthrough learning method, a 13-year-old girl from Grand Island has found a way to express herself and her words are powerful. She's now using one of her talents to give back and help others with autism find their voices, too.
As a toddler, Reagan Fast wasn't meeting her milestones and she was diagnosed with delays at age 2 and autism at age 3.
"She would have behaviors and outbursts and things that were just very difficult. We could tell she was struggling and that's hard to see. Hard to watch," said Reagan's mother, Rebecca Fast.
Reagan was able to learn some words, but she was not conversational. Reagan's parents, Rebecca and Egon Fast, said the hardest part for them was not knowing what she wanted, and who she really was.
"Did she have a favorite color? What were her favorite foods? What activities were her favorite? You just don't know how to help your child because she seemingly didn't understand what we were saying, and we certainly didn't know what she was trying to communicate to us," said Rebecca.
Those secrets were finally unlocked when she turned 10-years-old, and the family took a leap of faith and brought her to Austin, Texas, to meet with Soma Mukhopadhyay, the woman who developed a learning technique called Rapid Prompting Method, or RPM.
"Our very first day, we could not believe what was coming out of our daughter," said Rebecca. "We still can't believe it."
On day one, Reagan was multiplying two-digit numbers in her head, without ever taking a math class. She also wrote this poem:
A bird was flying, sun was shining.
Bird saw a tree, and a bee.
Bird saw a cat, she was fat.
Bird saw a mouse climbing a house.
Those simple questions Reagan's parents once asked, could finally be answered. She told them her favorite color was blue, her favorite food was soup, and her favorite activity was swimming.
When WGRZ's Melissa Holmes asked Reagan how it made her feel when she could finally communicate, Reagan wrote the following response on her iPad: "I was so happy to have a way to let them know that I was intelligent."
Her family learned just how intelligent she truly is. Reagan explained to them that her whole life she could understand everything she heard, but she couldn't respond, and if she did, she would say and do things that she knew weren't right. She said RPM allowed her to show what's on her mind and in her heart.
"I now have so many possibilities that will allow me to have a future that is more independent," Reagan wrote.
After learning RPM, Reagan was able to join mainstream classes in Grand Island with the help of an aide. At her moving up ceremony from Huth Road School at the end of 5th grade, just months after learning RPM, Reagan wrote the following essay and stood on stage as her teacher read it to her classmates:
When I first came to Huth Road School I was locked in my own mind. I could not express myself. I was very lonely. My future was not happy to think about. I was totally lost. But at the age of ten I was given the gift of my voice. I learned to communicate using a letter board, which is what I am using now to write this essay. Now I can show what is on my mind and in my heart.
Having autism is difficult because people only see the outside individual, not their mind. I have to act normal for people to participate in my life, and I am not able to understand how to change because I am always too bombarded with too many thoughts all at the same time. I can see thousands of images or hear hundreds of sounds all at once, and I become overwhelmed easily. I want to speak, but I can't get the words out. My pencil is my voice. My thoughts and ideas are now able to be expressed.
So what does Huth Road School mean to me? It means teachers who believe in my intelligence. It means being in regular classes and learning things that challenge me. It means freedom. I am thankful for Huth Road School teachers for helping me to have life and a hopeful future.
Now in 7th grade, Reagan is on the high honor roll and does the same work as students in mainstream classes, although it takes her often 3 times longer than average students to complete all the work. She told her parents she wants to attend the University of California at Berkley to study botany. And she wants others with autism to be able to discover their true potential, too.
So with the same motor skills she uses for her iPad and stencil board, she learned how to use them to knit. The money she raises from selling her knit hats at $10-$12 each, she gives to others to help with the costs associated with learning RPM. She's raised almost $1000 so far.
"She has such a heart, such a sweet and kind heart," said Reagan's mother. "I think that is the most special thing for me, is to see how good of a person she is inside."
Holmes asked Reagan how it feels to know she's helping others while knitting her hats. Reagan wrote, "I feel so blessed that God has given me a way to be able to help other people with autism find their voice. It is life changing."
Reagan wrote the following, which was published on a brochure for Buffalo RPM:
"I am so grateful for RPM. My life has been transformed from a life of being trapped in a body that is uncooperative and unpredictable, into a new life that gives me hope and a future of possibilities. I will always have challenges, but I now have the tools to communicate and show everyone that individuals with autism have a purpose and much to offer the world."
To find out more about Buffalo RPM, click here.
To watch WGRZ's 2016 news story about Buffalo RPM and the children using it, click here.