Sharyland ISD has spent the last few years amping up its special education program. With specific curriculum, new spaces and year-round events designed to focus on the needs of students with disabilities, Special Education Director Dr. Leila Flores-Torres said the district has much to celebrate.
Among SISD’s recently developed initiatives is the Run for Autism fundraiser — a community event where people register to compete in a foot race for autism awareness. This year is the second time Sharyland ISD and produce company Wonderful Citrus co-host the event. On Sept. 16 at the Bentsen Palm Community Park, the two entities will host a 10K, 5K and family fun run, with staggered start times beginning at 7 a.m. Flores-Torres said anyone in the surrounding Sharyland community is welcome to join.
For the 2022 Run for Autism fundraiser, 700 people participated, surpassing the projected 400 participants. But this year, Flores-Torres said they hope to assemble 1,000 participants. And she is confident the community can reach the goal.
“It helps to maintain wellness and health in the community,” the special education director said. “A race will bring everybody together, it will be a healthy environment for our kids to attend. And…it started because of a great partnership with parents.”
The special education director explained that a parent employed with Wonderful Citrus reached out to her because they wanted to do something that combined community and autism awareness.
“This parent, specifically, has a child with autism. And so she said, ‘I want to help impact my community through supporting students with autism in the school setting,’” Flores-Torres recalled. “So that’s how this citrus race started — by a parent reaching out to the district saying, ‘I want to make a difference.’”
Last year, Wonderful Citrus donated $30,000 to Sharyland ISD’s special education department. Regardless of how much money the district raises this year, all the proceeds will still go to the special ed. department — specifically the Simply Social initiative.
Simply Social is a voluntary classroom-based program that helps autistic students with their social and behavioral skills. SISD psychologists created the curriculum so students on the autism spectrum can prepare for independent living.
“One of the characteristics of autism is a deficit in social interaction and social communication,” Flores-Torres said. “And in order to work with that, we have these specific types of programs that aim to increase their abilities to socially communicate and socially interact with other students, and with adults around them.”
During the 2022-2023 school year, Sharyland had more than 200 students with autism. At the November 2022 school board meeting, the special education director said SISD was the school district with the most autistic students in the region in relation to the student population.
This year, Sharyland already documented 284 students with autism — a figure likely to increase as the year progresses.
“That number changes because we have an ongoing evaluation process called Child Find. And so, it’s the teachers’, staff’s and parents’ responsibility to — when they suspect a child might have a disability — ask for the child to be evaluated,” Flores-Torres said. “Our number of students with disabilities is constantly growing and, specifically, the number of kids with autism has grown tremendously in the last few years.”
But as the number of Sharyland students diagnosed with autism grows, the district continues to improve how it serves all students with disabilities, the director explained.
“In special education, things change all the time and so we have to keep up with the change and also go with the flow,” Flores-Torres said. “Disabilities nowadays are more visible. Back in the day…students with disabilities didn’t have the same opportunities to be around students without disabilities or nondisabled peers. But the law has changed. So now our kids with disabilities enjoy the same rights, the same responsibilities and the same privileges that we afford kids without disabilities.”