Battling autism, Brandon on right track at PA Cyber
Apr 23, 2015
“I looked through my window and saw a train standing perfectly still in front of my house.”
The story was “The Polar Express,” and the narrator reciting it perfectly from memory for a Christmas program was PA Cyber Charter School student Brandon Kaup.
A small group of young children was seated in front of him at the PA Cyber Greensburg office, listening intently as Brandon told the story from beginning to end, complete with different voices for the various characters, vocal inflections to convey the wonder and excitement felt by the boy in the story, and sound effects such as a train whistle and the tinkling of a tiny silver bell, Santa’s special gift to the teller of the tale.
An uncanny ability for memorization is perhaps the only gift that autism has given to Brandon. The disadvantages of being on the autism spectrum are many, and great.
At age 13, Brandon is nominally in sixth grade, but this spring has just completed second grade and started on third grade-level classes. According to his mother Barbara Kaup, since enrolling in PA Cyber three years ago Brandon has made steady progress. That’s in sharp contrast to the “two steps forward, three steps back” experiences he had in both traditional and special classroom schools.
In classroom schools, she said, “he was frustrated, overwhelmed. He was spending so much of his energy trying to hold it together. With the sensory overload from the noise and social demands, learning became secondary. He was trying to survive and get through the day.”
Diagnosed at age 3
Barb and Jason Kaup were living in Florida when Brandon was diagnosed with autism a week before his third birthday.
They soon found, Barb said, that the State of Florida provides very little for autistic children through schools and social service agencies.
“I quit my job once he was diagnosed, and I started doing some of the ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) therapies on him myself. They tell you these kids need 40 hours a week of therapy. There was no way we could afford to pay privately for the services he needed,” she said.
Their research showed that Pennsylvania, their home state, does a much better job of helping kids with autism make the grade. Jason found employment here, and along with younger daughter Jocelyn (now 10), the family moved to New Stanton, not far from Barb’s hometown of Greensburg.
For four years they worked with public school officials to find a learning situation that would keep Brandon on track.
“We tried just about every school setting out there: autistic support classrooms, learning support classrooms, specialized autism school and mainstream classrooms. Some things were more successful than others,” Barb said. “When he had the right supports he did great. We held our breath every year. The second year in mainstream he had different staff and it all fell apart. Watching him regress – that was hard when we know what he can do. He’s bright. He can learn.”
Trying PA Cyber
Brandon’s parents felt he would do better in classes conducted at home, away from the distractions of a brick-and-mortar classroom, but the idea of home schooling an autistic child without a real school’s curriculum, teachers and support structure was daunting. They decided to try PA Cyber, and it turned out to be just the ticket.
“This is his third year at PA Cyber. It has actually been wonderful,” his mother said. “For the first time he has a truly individualized IEP (individualized educational Plan). He continues to get speech therapy and occupational therapy. He qualified for more support than what he was getting in traditional schools, which is nice.”
In a traditional classroom school, it would be tough for a sixth grader to study second or third grade material. PA Cyber’s flexibility allows instruction to be tailored to the student’s needs, and not dictated by calendar age and social promotion.
“Through PA Cyber, Brandon has gotten more supports for curriculum and his adaptations to it. He was given more time to complete the curriculum. That was the big one,” his mom said.
Brittany Cilli was Brandon’s instructional supervisor when he first came to PA Cyber. “I was able to call her when he was struggling with a concept. She was wonderful. She suggested how to present it, how to reinforce it. She was my main go-to person,” Barb said.
This year, Stephanie Tierno is Brandon’s academic adviser and Ed Gorman is his special education teacher. Ed is the main contact, communicating regularly with Barb by phone and email.
“Brandon’s a great kid,” Ed said. “His progress has been slow, but has been significant this school year especially. We match the curriculum to his ability level and give him extra time when he needs it. His mom does a great job of advocating for him. She’s really involved.”
A regular at the Greensburg office
Brandon comes to PA Cyber’s Greensburg regional office twice a week for speech and occupational therapy supplied through PA Cyber. He is a regular at student family events hosted there, such as the Radio Disney rallies and back to school parties. His sister Jocelyn often joins in the fun when not in her classroom school.
Therapeutic support staff from the Family Behavioral Resources agency in North Huntington visit Brandon at the Kaup home to work with him on social skills and any behavioral issues he’s having, such as getting sidetracked or inappropriately blowing off steam. The frequency of the visits has decreased because he needs them less.
Well-meaning people warned the Kaups that educating Brandon at home in cyber school would not provide the socialization a child needs. That has proven not to be true.
Brandon regularly comes in for enrichment classes in addition to his therapy sessions. “He has done quite a few of the ArtReach classes and even a musical theatre class,” his mom said. “His social skills have increased dramatically.”
“When Brandon first began coming in to the Greensburg office, he wouldn’t even look at me,” said receptionist Danielle Pityk. “Now he always talks with me and tells me jokes. He’s such a sweet guy.”
Tailoring his learning style
“There is a great quote that I have hung on our classroom wall here at home that I use as my guide: ‘Every child has a different learning style and pace. Each child is unique, not only capable of learning but also capable of succeeding,’” said Barb.
She said Brandon himself has guided her. “By following his lead, he has shown us abilities and strengths that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. We try to capitalize on his strengths and use them to help him achieve things that most people thought he never would achieve.
“Working with him at home has given me the flexibility to present material to Brandon in a way that better suits his learning style. For example, I'm able to incorporate his favorite TV characters or puppets into our lessons to engage him and keep his attention. I'm able to provide lots of visual supports and hands-on learning into his lessons.”
The story told in “The Polar Express” is about a boy who goes on a delightful journey to a magical destination, overcoming the warnings of a “realist” friend who told him the destination he sought does not exist.
The point of the story is that the boy’s belief made the difference in reaching the destination and receiving the gift he wanted so much. Perhaps that’s why this story holds a magical attraction for Brandon Kaup, a boy on a difficult journey of his own.
(April is National Autism Awareness Month)
Casie Colalella / firstname.lastname@example.org
About PA Cyber
Serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade, the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (PA Cyber) is one of the largest, most experienced, and most successful online public schools in the nation. PA Cyber's online learning environments, personalized instructional methods, and choices of curricula connect Pennsylvania students and their families with state-certified and highly-qualified teachers, and rich academic content that is aligned to state standards. Founded in 2000, PA Cyber is headquartered in Midland (Beaver County) and maintains a network of support offices throughout the state. As a public school, PA Cyber is open for enrollment by any school-age child residing in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and does not charge tuition to students or families.