Abilene State School is located on seventy-five acres just outside the southeast city limit of Abilene. The school is charged with the responsibility of caring for the intellectually disabled citizens of 115 Texas counties. It was originally an epileptic colony authorized by the Twenty-sixth Texas Legislature in 1899, though it was actually established by the Twenty-seventh Legislature in 1901 with an appropriation of $50,000. Subsequent appropriations increased that figure to $250,000 for the construction of the colony.
The colony was built on a 640-acre tract of land donated by the city of Abilene. Brick buildings constructed on forty acres constituted the colony proper. Of the remaining 600 acres, 400 were under cultivation and 200 were in pasture. Dr. John Preston, the colony's first superintendent, admitted its first patients on March 26, 1904. Treatment was a combination of proper diet and hygiene, regular habits, and exercise. The state provided free treatment for indigent patients; others paid five dollars a week.
In 1919 the Texas legislature abolished the colony's original board of managers and replaced it with the state Board of Control. In 1925 Abilene State Hospital became the institution's new name, although the hospital continued to treat epileptics exclusively. In 1949 responsibility for the hospital was transferred to the Board for Texas State Hospitals and Special Schools. At that time the complex consisted of thirty wards and numerous associated buildings. That same year the legislature allowed the hospital to admit black patients, but none was actually admitted until the completion of two black wards in 1952. In 1957 the institution was renamed Abilene State School. The name change signified the new functions of the institution as a residential center for the intellectually disabled citizens of Texas.
In 1963 the Abilene State School discontinued livestock operations. By 1964 fifteen single-story units had replaced the original structures. In 1965 the Texas legislature passed the Texas Mental Health and Mental Retardation Act. Subsequent legislation directed the school to intensify its efforts in caring for the intellectually disabled. Also in 1965 the Board for Texas State Hospitals and Special Schools was abolished and replaced by the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. The new policy also deemphasized residential care in favor of a variety of outpatient and community-oriented services.
Because education and training of the intellectually disabled are the focus of Abilene State School, the institution provides workshops for those clients with the capability to use them. Academic instruction for the clients takes place in two buildings under the supervision of the school's education department. In 1985, 325 clients received instruction in socialization, communication, and basic motor skills from eleven teachers. Employees give therapy and instruction in basic living skills continuously in the dormitories.
In 1993 Abilene State School had 720 clients and more than 1,700 workers with an annual payroll of $27 million. The completion of a new administration building, six cottage-type dormitories, and a chapel brought the number of buildings to about seventy-five, with a value of $17,671,000.