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Patty and Phil Dion

Patty and Phil Dion were MVPs long before joining Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center’s Multiyear Visionary Partner (MVP) program. They were inspired to become involved with SARRC many years ago to honor their son, Dave.

Dave struggled with health issues related to his premature birth and developmental challenges during his school years and into adulthood. Medication after medication, consultation after consultation, and multiple treatments were unsuccessful.

They eventually met with Dr. Raun Melmed when Dave, who was in his thirties, received a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, which explained his social difficulties—and can be difficult to identify in earlier years because language develops on time and there is no cognitive impairment. Asperger’s syndrome is no longer considered a distinct disorder but is now considered part of autism spectrum disorder.

“Sadly the diagnosis and treatment came too late, we lost Dave in 2005,” says Patty. “As parents, we were devastated, but inspired to try to make a difference and call attention to Asperger’s.”

At the time of Dave’s diagnosis, this form of autism was often overlooked and little understood. It was not unusual that the Dions hadn’t heard of it, but that situation is something they are determined to change.

That challenge was the subject of a 2007 dinner meeting with SARRC co-founders Dr. Raun Melmed and Denise Resnik. As a result, the ThinkAsperger’s program was founded with funding from the Dions and still thrives today with continued support from SARRC’s Swirl, Sip and Savor wine event championed by Patty and Phil.

With the initial funding, SARRC’s Chief Science Officer, Dr. Christopher J. Smith, and his research team created a screening tool called Detecting Asperger’s Very Early (DAVE) – now called Social Challenges Screening Questionnaire. The program has since been expanded to “Think Autism,” where parents, educators and medical professionals are encouraged to ‘think autism’ when they see subtle social challenges in children. Ultimately, the hope is that school-age children are screened just as they may be with hearing and vision tests.

Additional support from Swirl, Sip and Savor has since generated funds to co-develop a revolutionary virtual autism simulator that launched nationwide in spring 2020 to train for interactions between law enforcement and people with autism.

“Our inspiration is in helping other families identify why their child or young adult is struggling early on, so that intervention can make a difference and prevent the suffering our son went through,” says Patty and Phil.

Patty has also served on SARRC’s board of directors. As well, she and Phil have been table captains at SARRC’s Annual Community Breakfast for many years.

Joining the MVP donor program was a natural step for the Dions, with the entire family, including Dave’s siblings Jaime and Phil Jr. in support. They are very confident in SARRC’s expertise.

“Phil and I totally believe in SARRC program services in our community and beyond and we are proud to support these efforts,” Patty says. “We are passionate about the  screening tool and how successful it has been at identifying youth and hope it can continue to expand its reach.”

Notably, their commitment to expanding the program has now become a standard within Great Hearts Academies. In 2017, Great Hearts started screening their second-, fourth- and eighth-grade students using the Social Challenges Screening Questionnaire.

“Phil and I hope our ongoing support will enable SARRC to continue to grow other research-based programs like the PEERS program to help youth impacted like our son to learn the social nuances and other skills that will enable them to be part of their community continuing to grow and thrive,” Patty says.

The Dions also are passionate about other local healthcare organizations, including Phoenix Children’s Hospital and Barrow Neurological Institute.

Phil Dion’s name may be familiar to many Arizonans. Originally from Chicago, the couple moved here in 1972, left for a few years for job reasons, but returned permanently in 1982. Phil eventually became CEO of one of Arizona’s most prominent companies, Del Webb Corp., and is now retired. Both enjoy health and fitness activities, and Patty has written a family cookbook.

Are you interested in making a difference by becoming a SARRC Multiyear Visionary Partner? Learn more here.