By Janelle Romano
Nestled into a quaint little office park in The Woodlands is a spectacular private school that offers hope and educational alternatives for children with autism. Texas Autism Academy (TAA) opened last year with a vision to help the 1 in 59 students diagnosed with autism each year. Before this, special education teachers Jane Walls, Cary Mollinedo and Shelinta Perez worked in the public school system and saw these special children, trying their best to succeed in a system that was missing key components to help them. That was when Walls, Mollinedo and Perez knew that they could make a difference.
In the Beginning
Jane Walls, President of the TAA, grew up with a brother who was autistic. She knew that with the right support and resources, children could not only assimilate into the public education system, but also flourish. Jane’s brother, Armando, had done just that. Although Armando initially floundered in school and was not given much hope to succeed in a traditional environment, he has gone on to receive his degree from Texas A&M, become a teacher and now is working on his master’s degree.
The challenge presented to Jane Walls was to develop a model that could be applied to other children with autism—to bridge the gap and give them a chance for academic and personal success. Hoping to help as many children as possible, the founders of the Texas Autism Academy originally aimed to open a charter school. However, after a trip to San Antonio to visit the only state-funded school for children with disabilities in Texas, they were disappointed. They learned that, as remarkable and wonderful as it was, the state-funded charter school stopped at second grade, and there were no funds available for any additional schools in Texas.
Walls, Mollinedo and Perez knew that tuition for a private school would be cost prohibitive for many parents of children with autism; insurance rarely covers the full expenses of therapy, and applied behavior therapy alone can cost up to $8,000 per year—out of pocket. As a result, the three of them created a nonprofit (ASD Hope, Inc.) and formed the Texas Autism Academy to serve children four to twelve years of age. They hoped that by forming a nonprofit umbrella organization, they could not only raise awareness for autism education but also raise money that would fund scholarships and provide access to education for more children.
In 2017, they began with two children and ended the school year with five. All three teachers worked for free that first year. This year, TAA has twelve children (all of the five children from the previous year have returned), the teachers are receiving a modest salary (less than what they were making in the public school) and they have hired a board-certified behavior analyst to work with the students full-time.
Philosophy and Method
Many parents do not know where to turn when they find their child, with or without a diagnosis, struggling in school, as educational options for children with autism are very limited. To receive additional support in a public school classroom, a child needs both a medical and an educational diagnosis, which can take up to a year to document. Even upon receiving a diagnosis, assistance and an Individual Education Plan (IEP), many of these students continue to struggle due to the size of the classes and quickly fall behind their peers.
Texas Autism Academy addresses and corrects behavior and social challenges through applied behavior analysis. Many of the parents and students are familiar with these techniques from autism therapy; however, TAA integrates the applied behavior principals into the curriculum through a methodical, data-driven process. The ratio of 7 students to 2 teachers allows TAA to not only customize the speed and level of learning but also to address social and behavioral needs as they occur, allowing the children to focus on learning.
Additionally, TAA removes the pressure of standardized testing and creates a new IEP every nine weeks, for each student, utilizing the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) to track progress. Students learn, advance and get back on track to reintegrate, ideally on grade level, into an inclusion environment. These kids who have become accustomed to exclusion are thriving with a peer group and friends who celebrate each other’s achievements, allowing these children the opportunity and the feeling, sometimes for the first time, of success.
Cindy Baylor, a TAA parent, has this to say about the school: “We were so thrilled to find TAA last year. We tried private school, but they lacked the resources; public school had the resources, but was too overwhelming for our son. TAA has been an incredible blessing for our family. I am a mental health professional, and I am amazed at how the TAA staff encourages our child and can handle any situation that may arise. TAA gave our son the confidence and social skills he needed to be comfortable and thrive with his peers. We started a PTO (parent teacher organization) this year to raise funds for the school. . . . Our goal is to make this amazing option accessible to more families.”
Success looks different for each individual, and every child with autism is unique. However, every parent wants their child to reach their potential—academically and socially. The innovative program at TAA results in children mastering skills, overcoming obstacles and conquering fears. Parents primarily come to Texas Autism Academy to boost their child’s confidence and to bridge the gap, allowing reentry into a traditional school setting. However, parents ultimately find that what begins as a short-term solution is irreplaceable when they see the progress, both personally and academically, that their children have made in this unique learning environment.
“There is no judgment here. The kids are truly supportive of each other and celebrate all of their accomplishments together. When we started creating, planning, and preparing to open Texas Autism Academy, we recognized the importance of educating and developing the whole child with autism. Our students are thriving academically and behaviorally, but what warms my heart the most is watching them develop lasting friendships,” says Cary Mollinedo, Director of Texas Autism Academy.