podcastED: Founder of Arizona charter school for children with autism seeks to take model national

Diana Diaz-Harrison and her son, Sammy

On this episode, senior writer Lisa Buie talks with Diana Diaz-Harrison, a former teacher, television journalist and founder at Arizona Autism Charter School in Phoenix, the Southwest region’s only tuition-free school specializing in best practices for students who are on the autism spectrum.

Diaz-Harrison started the school in 2014 after her son, Sammy, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2, began attending kindergarten. The arrangement wasn’t working well for Sammy and others who have ASD, she explains, noting that while federal law requires that exceptional students receive “free and appropriate” education in district schools, it’s no guarantee it will be the best education.

“I think that the stigma that is associated with an autism diagnosis, it’s kind of fading … people don’t think of it as a death sentence anymore. We are offering so much hope, along with other agencies in the community, that children with autism can learn. They can thrive.”

Sammy attended a private program for a couple of years, and while that was a better environment, the costs were not sustainable. Private programs can cost $40,000 to $50,000 per year.

So, she and other parents opened Arizona Autism Center with 90 students with the mission of using best practices such as applied behavior analysis. The school now serves 700 students on four campuses, including a high school and a virtual program. Another high school will open in Tucson this fall.

The founders’ efforts were rewarded last year when the school took the top $1 million award in the Yass Prize competition, which seeks to recognize and aid education programs that are “sustainable, transformational, outstanding and permissionless.”

In seeking to replicate its model, the school partnered with South Florida Autism Charter School in Miami-Dade County to start a National Autism Charter School Accelerator with the goal of getting at least one autism-focused charter in every state.


  • How Diaz-Harrison was inspired to start an autism-focused school
  • Why she chose a charter school model in a state with a strong education choice scholarship program
  • How she used her broadcast background to raise awareness
  • What Arizona Autism Charter School provides in the way of educational best practices
  • The Florida connection to Diaz-Harrison’s expansion plans
  • How Arizona Charter Autism School plans to use its $1 million Yass Prize


Arizona Autism Charter School

Yass Prize

South Florida Autism Charter School

Autism and Applied Behavior Analysis

CDC Community Report on Autism


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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for NextSteps. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.