A Student's Story at L.E.A.P
Juliana’s report card days were always something to dread for her grandmother, Laura Jackson-Bryant, and her mother, Penny Wallace. The results were always disheartening: Fail. Fail. Fail.
Diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder at age 1, Juliana struggled in public school. “Her report card always said she failed,” Laura remembers. “And I thought, how could she fail anything when she couldn’t even talk to try? It was like the teachers couldn’t reach or teach her.”
That’s because they couldn’t—no one could. Often, because of class sizes and the demands of teaching behaviorally challenged kids, even the best public schools aren’t equipped to handle children on the severe end of the autism spectrum. Later, in a private school, Juliana still struggled. “They only wanted to teach her cooking and cleaning,” says Laura. But she wanted her granddaughter to have a chance to learn the same things other children did. What about counting and spelling?
The family had struggled to find the right place for Juliana for years. “You have to fight for her, because she can’t fight for herself,” Laura says. “But you’re up against people telling you what they can’t do, even though you know there are things out there for her.”
Finally, with help from an educational advocate, Laura and Penny enrolled Juliana in L.E.A.P., a special autism education program at Kennedy Krieger. From there, everything changed. “It was like a whole new world opened up for her,” Laura says.
L.E.A.P. (Lifeskills and Education for Students with Autism and other Pervasive Behavioral Challenges) is an intensive, yearlong program for kids and young adults ages 5 to 21. The program offers highly structured environments for students with severe autism and behavioral issues and incorporates therapy with learning.
Now 9 years old, Juliana has thrived in the program, and, in the process, she’s become increasingly independent. She feeds herself, raises her hand during class, loves music, and pays attention to those around her. And, though still mostly nonverbal, she can use a dynamic display device to communicate wants, needs, and thoughts. “It’s incredible the amount of progress she’s made here,” says Melissa Byars, her school social worker. “To go from limited communication to commenting and asking us for things is outstanding.”
The changes in Juliana are mirrored in her progress reports, which her family no longer dread. Today she’s not just getting by, she’s excelling. “Out of all the places she’s been,” Laura says, “Kennedy Krieger is the only one that brought out the real Juliana.”