Monarch Institute in Houston, Texas

A few days ago I had the privilege of visiting Monarch Institute in Houston Texas, a magical place for kids with neurological differences.  I’ve written about Monarch School before; the Institute is an outgrowth of that original program.  Join me now for a brief history of the program, and what programs like this mean to young people all over the country.

Monarch was founded in 1997 as a therapeutic day school for Houston-area kids whose neurological challenges were too much for the pubic school system.  At that time, the public schools would only go so far with special ed services.  Beyond that it was up to the parents.  The options were grim – institutionalization or out of state programs.

I knew that situation well, for it was what I faced as a neurodiverse child in the 1960s.  Who could forget the fear of being sent to a state school for the retarded, or its alternative: reform school; jail for teenagers.  That was the situation that prevailed in Texas (and many other states) when Monarch was founded.

State schools and reform schools didn’t reform, educate, or develop their charges.  They were little more than doorways to adult disability or criminality; they were the worst possible places for neurodiverse children to be sent.  They were a product of the thinking of 1960’s psychiatrists – thinking that said kids like us were lazy, stupid, or deliberately defiant.  To them, discipline was the answer, not therapy.

Monarch founder Marty Webb had a different vision.  She imagined a place where kids could feel safe; a place where their talents would be developed and nurtured.  When I first visited Monarch – in 2007 – it was obvious that her vision was working.  When I went into the classrooms the feelings of safety, peace, and pride were palpable.  I knew immediately that Monarch was a very special institution.

That was why I asked them to write the teacher’s guides for my books Look Me in the Eye and Be Different.  Under the guidance of Monarch staffer John Barone the students and staff studied both books and made teaching guides that included both adult teacher and autistic student perspectives.  I was very proud of the results.

Monarch grew and developed as I watched.  They added a diagnostic clinic, which provides services to schools and families all over Texas.  They added a residential program, which accommodates students who can’t make the trip from home daily.  They even added a training program, to teach their methods to others who wanted to open schools in their images, and indeed Monarch-based schools have sprouted around the United States and even in Mexico and Central America.  These were the changes that turned Monarch from a school to an institute.

The most remarkable thing about all of this was that it was accomplished entirely through the support of families and donors.  The generosity of the Houston community was nothing short of remarkable.  With a steady inflow of students, Monarch outgrew their initial space, and the campus that followed it.  A donation of twelve acres of prime Houston land promised all the room they would ever need, but they had to raise the money to build on it.  When I visited Houston in 2011 the process was well underway, and their first building was open.  Since then, they have raised over fifteen million dollars, and they’ve just opened the John O’Quinn campus.

This Tuesday I listened to Barbara Bush, Marty Webb, and others from the community and the governing board as they shared their stories and showed us the new campus.  I even said a few words myself, and my wife and I spent a day with the students. I’m pleased to say the programs are even better than what I saw on my first visit in 2007.

If I were to pick one way to describe the school, it would be this:  Monarch is focused on helping every student be the best he can be, from age three until young adulthood.  Monarch isn’t about blame, cure, discipline or any of those things that were so counterproductive in my life (and the lives of other autistic adults.)  They are about potential, and helping each of us to become the best we can be, each in our own special way.  It’s a really great place; one I’m proud to know.

Regular readers of this blog know I've founded my own program up here in Massachusetts in conjunction with Tri County Schools.  Read the latest on that program here.  Our TCS Auto Program is teaching the automotive profession to young people with challenges in the midst of our commercial auto complex.  When I think of what I want TCS Automotive to feel like for students, I think of Monarch.  I give my Texan friends my strongest possible endorsement.

If you’re in the Houston area I invite you to stop by for a visit.  Tell them I sent you, if you're feeling brave or adventurous.  And if you’re far away, visit them online through this link

John Elder Robison

John is the NY Times bestselling author of LOOK ME IN THE EYE and BE DIFFERENT. His latest book - RAISING CUBBY - is on sale in North American paperback March 18.  Order your copy today!


Thank you for this post, John.
I immediately wrote them to find out how can they help my 7yo with autism. I told them I wrote because I am a fan of your blog.

Dr Shaw replied soon and I'm on the process to gather information from them in terms of how can we help my kid. How much does it cost, etc. ( I'm a single mom living near the border in Mexico)

Thanks again

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