Autism Charter Schools Bring Wider Range of Options

May 01, 2014

Parents of autistic children face a unique challenge in finding the right school for their special needs children. It is often a balancing act between a specialized approach and a more traditional classroom setting.

Arizona Autism Charter School will open in the fall. It will teach 90 kindergarten through fourth grade students.

Its founder, Diana Diaz-Harrison, has a son who is autistic. She was frustrated with the lack of schools where children with special needs can learn.

“We’re working on being part of the solution, but we already have a waiting list,” Diaz-Harrison said. “The state capped our school at 90 students and we filled up pretty quickly because there’s such a need. There are parents driving from very long distances to come to our school because it’s a program that’s not offered in their area.”

Angela Denning is director of special education at the Arizona Department of Education. She said Arizona is all about giving parents more choices, but she sees some problems with keeping special needs students in an isolated environment.

“There are some challenges when a child has only access to other students who are disabled,” Denning said. “And we just don’t know, because the autism charter only has students who are autistic. They don’t have the benefit of non-disabled typical peers to be models, to interact, to do all of that.”

Denning stressed the importance of parents choosing the best place for their children to be successful.

Kami Cothrun runs Pieceful Solutions. It is a private school for children with autism, but recently received a charter for the upcoming school year. Cothrun said parents do not always have the resources to make the best decisions.

“There’s not really a one-stop-shop, there’s not really a handbook that parents have. Here, your child’s been diagnosed with autism, here are all the resources possible,” Cothrun said. “All special needs has different chat groups and blogs and support groups, and I think that helps our families some.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been modified to reflect the accurate name of Diana Diaz-Harrison.

Updated 5/2/2014 at 11:15 a.m.