The school's founders said they launched TAA in 2017 to help provide support in areas they said were not provided in the public school system, such as having a board-certified behavior analyst on staff to help develop individualized plans for students.
“We were public school teachers and we were seeing an influx of autism diagnosis,” said Cary Mollinedo, co-founder and president of the private school. "Services were not available in the public school system ... so we said let's do something about it."
She said the founders developed the school as private-pay, because a charter school—which would use public funding—did not appear to be feasible or timely.
“We wanted to be open and provide these services, with a big goal of raising money for scholarships,” she said.
The nonprofit private school now serves students from ages 4-14, though it will continue to increase the upper age to 22 as current students advance through the grade levels, she said. Partnerships with local colleges and workforce agencies could help in providing future employment for graduates as well.
"For people with autism right now, what you find is if you look at them as adults, 70-90% are unemployed or underemployed," said Amy Wood, a TAA board member and founder of the Texas Neurodevelopment Center, a new organization based in The Woodlands that partners with the school and other autism services groups.
Operations amid COVID-19
Each student at TAA has an Individual Education Plan and works at his or her level; for example, a fourth-grade student might work at a sixth-grade level in some areas, or a student might progress at a younger grade level on a particular subject.
The academy also employs a board-certified behavior analyst, or BCBA, who helps to prepare an individual education plan for each student and evaluates students for admission.
The center is also set to grow. It has acquired another 2,500 square feet at the location where it operates on Pruitt Road and officials are considering a second campus site. There is not a geographical requirement for admission, and students come from as far away as Huntsville, Mollinedo said.
The student-to-teacher ratio is 7-2, and classes have been held in-person this year with appropriate distancing and mask requirements as well as full COVID-19 protocols, officials said.
The social learning that is part of in-person instruction has been crucial for the students, school officials said.
They need structure, and that’s a critical component of their ability to learn," Wood said. "We have kids that are all across the spectrum in terms of their academic capabilities ... some can gain from virtual teaching but others can’t."
One of the greatest challenges posed through the pandemic has been the limitations it imposes on fundraising, said board member Steve Leakey.
"We have been encouraged by the support we have gotten," Leakey said. "It's hard to raise money for anything.
The school has previously met a goal of raising enough for one scholarship per year, $22,000, but it would like to provide more scholarships in the future. This year, an outdoor fundraiser for TAA—a clay target shoot at a Conroe gun range—is scheduled for March 27.
Texas Neurodiversity Center
TAA is also now the academic arm of TNC, which formed in 2020 and has the goal of being an umbrella corporation for independent entities offering applied behavior analysis-based services for families.
Wood, who is the parent of an autistic child, said in addition to TAA, the nonprofit works with The Grove ABA, a business based in The Woodlands offering full-time and focused ABA intervention services for individuals ages preschool to adult. The two entities are the first that TNC has partnered with, but it hopes to eventually offer services for individuals into adulthood such as employment and independent living.
The idea is to provide a comprehensive set of services to people on the autism spectrum not only from early intervention all the way into adolescents and adulthood but to provide for different parts of the spectrum," Wood said.
For now, other resources the group is looking to develop include collaborations with high education institutions—such as Lone Star College System or four-year college in the area, she said.
Texas Autism Academy
1009 Pruitt Road, The Woodlands
March 27 fundraiser:
8:30 a.m.: registration and check-in
9:45 a.m.: event begins on course
Cost: $125 per person ($100 for first responders)
Location: Blackwood Gun Club, 11400 FM 2854, Conroe
Register at www.texasautismacademy.org