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Arizona Charter School Expands to Serve More Kids With Autism

Arizona Autism Charter School
(Photo courtesy Arizona Autism Charter School)
Founder Diana Diaz-Harrison and her son, Sammy, at the Arizona Autism Charter School in Phoenix.

For children diagnosed with autism, school can be a difficult place. They are often isolated and bullied. Some have become lost on the streets after wandering away from school.

Parents of autistic children worry about untrained school staff and over-crowded classrooms. But, one charter school in Arizona is changing that.

The Arizona Autism Charter School is geared specifically for children on all levels of the autism spectrum, from its small class sizes to its teaching styles, to the curriculum itself.

The school opened for kindergarten through fifth graders in 2014. Now, they’re expanding to include students through the eighth grade.

The school has been a relief to many parents whose autistic children have struggled in other schools for years, according to the school’s executive director and founder Diana Diaz-Harrison.

The school has a wait list of more than 100 students, and parents travel from all around the Valley so their children can attend.

“I really understand their struggle and how hard it is to, you know, drop your child off at school every day and not know what’s going on or if the teachers are trained or if they even know what autism is,” Diaz-Harrison said.     

She understands because her own son, Sammy, was diagnosed with autism when he was just two years old.

“That just changed my whole life path completely,” she said.

Her son is severely affected by his autism, Diaz-Harrison said. He’s nonverbal, and when he reached school age, it was a challenge.

“He did regress, and the teachers didn’t understand how to relate to him,” she said.

So, she decided to do something about it. She went through a program that the Arizona Charter Schools Association held to learn how to open a charter school and obtain approval from the state. In 2014 she opened the school herself.

Sammy enrolled in the fourth grade

“One in 64 Arizona children is affected by autism,” she said. “This is a state where kids are more highly affected than other states. So, this is a growing need; there really should be more schools that are specialized.”

The school serves kids on all levels of the autism spectrum, from high functioning kids to students like Sammy who are nonverbal.

“They come here and we’ve watched them speak their first words,” Diaz-Harrison said. “They are learning to request their preferred items or they are greeting a peer for the first time. And that is priceless. That will make us work as hard as possible to help as many kids as we can.”

The school was originally approved for 90 students, Diaz-Harrison said. This year, they increased by about two class sizes – to 108 students. She said they filled up immediately and their wait list remains.

“We are working hard to expand and replicate and do it at the highest quality possible with the very distinctive focus on what’s best for children with autism,” Diaz-Harrison said.

Megan Tolway teaches high-functioning students in the fourth and fifth grade at the Arizona Autism Charter School.

“I get students that are able to communicate pretty effectively; they’re able to attack regular school work, but they’re really looking to expand on their social skills,” she said. To “learn how to cope when they lose a game or how to kind of maintain authentic friendships past that superficial level of just saying ‘hi.’”

Her class has 11 kids in it, and there are three adults in the room, she said.

“If they need to take a break, we have the space to take a break; we have the staff to allow them to take that break,” she said. “They can come back and be successful instead of it ruining their whole day.”

The school uses applied behavior analysis to teach its students, which, Tolway said, means they look at behaviors and what’s socially significant and then target specific skills to help their students achieve quality of life.

Tolway said her students are part of the process when it comes to their education and development.

“We want them to self-manage those behaviors,” she said. “It’s really being candid with them and letting them own what they’re working on.”

In her classroom, she’s seen it work.

“These are kids who did not have friendships before they came to this school, and they have true friendships. They go to birthday parties. They hang out on the weekends. They call and text each other,” she said. “So, when you look at quality of life, that’s everything. And they feel good about themselves here.”

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.