When Diana Diaz-Harrison’s son was young, she noticed that he was not reaching typical milestones at the appropriate age. Some of Sammy’s behaviors seemed odd or different. Before he turned 2, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
She enrolled Sammy in programs at Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center (SARRC) and learned how to teach and support him. At SARRC, where applied behavior analysis (ABA) strategies are used, her son began using words and his communication improved. “It was really nice to find something that seemed to really work,” says Diaz-Harrison.
When Sammy turned 4, she enrolled him in a school that did not use the ABA strategy. Despite caring teachers, her son struggled. Diaz-Harrison moved him to a private school that used a strong ABA strategy.
She wondered why there wasn’t a free public charter school for Arizona children with autism—so she decided to start one. She pitched the idea to other educators, took a course on charter school development and in 2013, the charter for Arizona Autism Charter Schools, Inc. was approved.
Arizona Autism Charter School opened its doors in Phoenix in the fall of 2014, with 90 students in grades K-5. Classes have just nine students and the student-to-teacher ratio is three to one, two to one or one to one, depending on each student’s needs and where he or she falls on the autism spectrum.
“Our amazing teachers have a lot of experience and make all the difference,” says Diaz-Harrison, who holds a master’s degree in education and serves as the school’s executive director.
ABA techniques work by reinforcing positive behaviors with something that matters to the kids, says Diaz-Harrison. Each child has his or her own reinforcement system and is rewarded upon successful completion of work. The work time is stretched progressively so that a 30-minute reward becomes an all-day reward or an all-week reward.
Diaz-Harrison knows the effort to start the school is paying off when she hears parents say, “This is the first time I don’t have to worry about my child at school; I know my child is safe and learning.”
She also sees her own child thriving. “Sammy is making great progress in his academic and functional skills at the school,” she says. “This year, he’s mastered most of his IEP (Individual Education Program) goals.”
Diaz-Harrison’s best advice for parents: “Charter schools are about providing choice. Special needs parents should have a choice, too. Don’t just settle. Seek programs that work.”
Arizona Autism Charter School is located at 4433 N. Seventh St. in Phoenix. For information, call 602- 882-5544 or visit autismcharter.org.