Luther Alumni Magazine

Communicating with autism

Annette (Niemann) Musso ’86 reads out the messages her autistic son, Matteo, spells using an alphabet board and the rapid prompting method. Photo by Will Heller '16.
Annette (Niemann) Musso ’86 reads out the messages her autistic son, Matteo, spells using an alphabet board and the rapid prompting method. Photo by Will Heller '16.

Twelve-year-old Matteo Musso has a lot to say, but until 18 months ago, he had little means to communicate his thoughts, insights, and ideas. Matteo is autistic and, in his case, has difficulty communicating through speech. But now, his thoughts are spilling out of him in the form of poetry, blog posts, book chapters, and question-and-answer sessions with school classes and other groups. His mother, Annette (Niemann) Musso '86, credits a system called rapid prompting method (RPM).

Matteo points to letters on a stencil-like alphabet board held by his mother, and she becomes his voice, reading out the thoughtful, often humorous, sentences that he spells. When the Mussos, who live in Livermore, Calif., learned about RPM and Matteo began training in the system, it was slow going, Annette says. But Matteo and his mom have progressed to the point where it's fairly easy for them to conduct Q&A sessions, and this is all-important to Matteo. His mission is to talk with as many people as possible about what it's like to be autistic.

Annette and Matteo were at Luther last fall for Homecoming, and for the second year, they spoke to Luther education students. Jill Leet-Otley, assistant professor of education, thought it was a great opportunity for her general education and special education students. One thing these students focus on is how to make all students feel like they're part of the classroom community. Matteo's messages fit perfectly.

His mission is to help create understanding between autistics and normally abled society, to build empathy. He challenged Leet-Otley's students not to talk for the rest of the day, to see what it is like to have his form of autism. How would they feel if, because they didn't speak, others assumed they were less intelligent than they truly were? Matteo urged these future teachers to assume intelligence when meeting autistic children in their classes. "Society must see through the package to the gift itself," Matteo says.

Leet-Otley says having Annette in class with Matteo was especially beneficial for her students. Annette told the students what it was like for her when Matteo began communicating through RPM, how she realized that some of her own assumptions about her son were wrong. For instance, she thought he could do math at only a rudimentary level when, in fact, he was quite advanced. "I was so ashamed," she said in class. Hearing that, Matteo smiled and patted his mom on the back, "I forgive you," he said.

Matteo uses an alphabet board to speak with school classes about autism. Photo by Will Heller '16.
Matteo uses an alphabet board to speak with school classes about autism. Photo by Will Heller '16.

"I think it's great to see that dynamic," Leet-Otley says. "As teachers, you have to remember that parents know their child best. So I'm always reminding students that you may have these ideas about a student, but when you go into a conference, always start by asking the parents, what are your hopes and dreams for your child, what can you share about your child that I may not know or see? . . . That's why I think it's a nice combination of having Matteo and Annette in our classroom."

The Mussos' first visit made a strong impression on Leet-Otley's students. "It kept coming up when we had time to reflect and in evaluations, the power of him being there instead of just learning about autism through a textbook or an article or video clip," she says.

Sophomore Madeline Miller says: "Hearing Matteo debunk common misconceptions about individuals with exceptional gifts and unique communication styles was more meaningful than reading from a textbook or discussing hypothetical situations. I enjoyed Matteo's poetry and was thankful he shared his beautiful talent with me and my peers. Matteo's visit was a meaningful reminder for future educators to be just as intentional to seek out the unique strengths of our students as well as the unique challenges."

Bellowing Waters

Inspired by a hike to Murray Canyon in Palm Springs, Calif. 

Bellowed the waterfall to the stream,
Understand that we are one and the same.
Different forms we take
But of the same energy made.
Now you flow as gently as a newborn baby
Down to the valley to nourish life itself.
Will you have the power to kiss all those in
I am here for you in strength and plenty
If you will only call on me for help.
I am the source of your abundance,
And the way to end the thirst of the world.

—Matteo Musso


Get in touch

Annette (Niemann) Musso '86 has a nonprofit, Creative Autism Solutions Team, which envisions "a world in which autistics are understood and where they and their talents are appreciated as special contributors to society." She can be reached at [email protected]. Matteo Musso's blog is As of last September, he says, he has spoken in person and via Skype to about 1,400 people about what it is like to be autistic.