When Carolina’s TEACCH Autism Program began in 1972, one in 2,500 children were diagnosed with ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Since then, the community of individuals with ASD has steadily grown. By 2002, 1 in 150 children were diagnosed, and by 2008, that statistic was 1 in 88.
Along with that growth came deeper awareness of the disorder and greater advocacy, more specialized services and research in everything from education to genetics.
“Autism is a word that now people know. I remember when someone would think they misheard you, that you’d said your child was ‘artistic,’” said Laura Klinger, who trained at TEACCH in the 1990s and came back two years ago to serve as executive director. “Everything has changed.”
In the next 10 years, roughly 500,000 children with autism will enter adulthood, reports Autism Speaks, a national autism advocacy organization.
“Those 8-year-olds counted in 2002 are now 20,” said Klinger, associate professor of psychiatry at UNC. “We’ll see a 78 percent increase in demand for adult services in the next six years.”
TEACCH is a community-based program named for its core values of teaching, expanding, appreciating, collaborating, cooperating and being holistic in its services for individuals with ASD. With seven regional centers, a supported employment program, one residential center for adults, and a professional training and certification program, TEACCH touches all 100 counties in the state, and its methods are used around the globe. Students in psychology, education, allied health sciences, psychiatry and social work at UNC have opportunities to receive training on ASD at TEACCH.
Through decades of development in service, treatment and programs, as well as the increase of diagnoses, TEACCH has always needed to be nimble. This year, a new clinical goal moved to the top of the list: to serve the growing population of adults with autism.
Serving through social entrepreneurship
Most adults with autism face a set of difficulties that could affect employment, said Klinger. Organization skills, social skills, anxiety and emotional regulation can present challenges in obtaining or keeping work.
A supported employment program providing job coaches for autistic adults and T-STEP (TEACCH School Transition to Employment Program) are a few of the ways TEACCH is already addressing those needs.
“We break things down into steps, teach them to use a calendar or a checklist,” Klinger explained. “What are employment-related social skills that you’d need at work, and how can we work on them? If you get critiqued at your job, what should you do, other than yell? How can you calm yourself down?”
And, by educating community partners about the skills and aptitudes of adults with autism, TEACCH can make a deeper impact. That is evident at Chapel Hill’s Extraordinary Ventures (EV), an organization that creates jobs for adults with ASD.
On the wall of the laundry room at EV, brightly colored laundry bags hang on a row of hooks. Above those are laminated squares, each showing a picture of a white shirt or a black shirt. With a Velcro backing, each square can be moved from machine to machine, and back to the wall, to help the employee follow the tasks necessary for EV’s laundry business, which serves 120 customers, most of whom are Carolina students.
“This is TEACCH,” said Van Hatchell, EV’s managing director, pointing to posters of instructions, directions and reminders.
TEACCH’s influence is everywhere at EV: in the history, signage and methods; in the training of many of the job coaches; and in the way EV’s managers communicate with the more than 40 adults with ASD who have found sustainable employment there.
EV was started in 2007 by a group of parents, many of whom had been served by TEACCH’s Chapel Hill clinic. In 2011 they sought a group of recent graduates from Kenan-Flagler Business School to create a portfolio of small businesses specifically to employ adults with ASD.
Hatchell was one of those new hires. He had focused on entrepreneurship at Carolina, and EV offered a place where he could try new things. He and the other hires came with fresh ideas and a willingness to work. What they lacked in experience, they made up for in energy.
But none had any experience with autism, so they reached out to TEACCH.
“The business end of things at EV is very important, but I’m a psychologist, so I don’t know anything about running a business. They knew how to run a business, but not necessarily with adults with autism,” said Klinger, who is also on the board of EV. “Merging the service delivery group and the business group is something EV has done very well.”
In a few short years and with a lot of trial and error, EV has created five self-sustaining businesses, each with its own portfolio. A laundry service, an office solutions business, a bus-detailing crew, an events center and a gifts business provide a diversity of opportunities to fit the skills of the adults they hire.
“We are creating jobs where the ideal candidate is someone who has autism, and that’s very unique,” said Hatchell. “We take a look at the employees that we have, assess which skills or interests they have and create businesses around them. It’s like market research in reverse.”