SARRC, Great Hearts Academies Partner for Autism Screening Project

The Kemper and Ethel Marley Foundation recently awarded funding to expand ‘Screening in Schools’ statewide

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 1 in 59 children has been identified with autism. Many children are not identified until after the age of 6, which is why Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) is collaborating with Great Hearts Academies on an autism screening initiative.

SARRC and Great Hearts are taking an innovative approach through the “Screening in Schools” project that aims to screen students—who may have been misdiagnosed or undiagnosed—by identifying social challenges to then prompt a formal autism evaluation. 

Primarily, they seek to identify students who would fit an Asperger’s profile – typical or advanced language development and academic functioning, but who experience social difficulties that can lead to serious functional impairments. Asperger’s disorder is now included in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

“Even if language develops appropriately, ASD causes significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, which are often unnoticed by parents until after the child begins to experience rejection by peers, bullying, decline in academic performance or co-occurring disorders, such as depression and anxiety. However, it might be possible to prevent—or at least minimize—the impact of these social challenges on children’s lives by detecting ASD before other problems emerge and implementing appropriate interventions to address the underlying social disorder,” says Christopher J. Smith, PhD, vice president and research director at SARRC.

Thanks to a generous $450,000 grant awarded by The Kemper and Ethel Marley Foundation, SARRC will expand Screening in Schools to every academy in the Great Hearts-Arizona network.

A tool called Social Challenges Screening Questionnaire—first developed and validated by SARRC through its ThinkAsperger’s program—will be used during the two-year project to screen an estimated 4,700 students across eleven elementary and middle schools. SARRC will provide a coordinated effort to educate, train and support teachers to screen second-, fourth- and eighth-grade students.

Dr. Smith adds, “People think of ASD as a disorder that is identified in very young children. While that’s true, people of any age can be diagnosed with ASD. In our diagnostic program, we see teens and adults with serious difficulties. In this project we’re hoping to identify and support these students long before more impactful problems emerge.”

“We are thrilled to be part of this incredible partnership with SARRC and the support opportunities it will create for our students and their families,” said Erik Twist, President, Great Hearts Arizona. “Great Hearts is proud to serve all students, and this unique screening program helps us ensure students receive the essential services and support they need.”

“We’re extremely grateful to The Kemper and Ethel Marley Foundation for funding this important work,” says Dr. Smith. “With this vital financial support, we’re confident we can make a bigger impact and model effectiveness of social screening for other schools to adapt.”

About Great Hearts

Great Hearts is a non-profit network of tuition-free public charter schools dedicated to improving education nationwide through classical preparatory K-12 academies. As the largest provider of liberal arts classical education campuses in the country, Great Hearts academies serve more than 17,000 students at 29 tuition-free public schools in greater Phoenix, Ariz. and San Antonio and Irving, Tex., with waitlists that typically exceed enrollment. Great Hearts provides a robust liberal arts curriculum incorporating advanced math and science, a focus on the arts and foreign language, and a range of extra-curricular activities and athletics. Learn more at greatheartsamerica.org.