In 1972 when Dr. Eric Schopler launched the University of North Carolina TEACCH® Autism Program, he set UNC on a trajectory as a national and international leader in Autism Spectrum Disorder research and services. Forty-three years later, and now under the leadership of Dr. Laura Grofer Klinger, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, TEACCH continues to stand alone in its comprehensive approach enhancing the quality of life for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their families.

While Dr. Klinger joined TEACCH as executive director in 2011, she first worked with the program in the early 1990’s when she sought out TEACCH for a year-long internship while pursuing her PhD in Child Clinical Psychology at University of Washington. She recalls choosing TEACCH for her internship because it stood out—it was the “first statewide program dedicated to providing diagnostic and treatment services to families impacted by autism in their home communities.”

TEACCH supports families across North Carolina with a range of services including referral and consultation, diagnostic evaluations, family and parent support groups, social play groups, individual counseling, and supported employment. North Carolina families can receive these services at the TEACCH headquarters in Chapel Hill or at one of the seven regional TEACCH Centers around the state.

Families receiving TEACCH services often do so at key transition points in Autism Spectrum Disorder—perhaps first for diagnosis as a toddler, again for kindergarten readiness, as a middle school student working on social skills, and then transitioning to adulthood and employment. One mother shares, “I believe the TEACCH for Toddlers program changed the trajectory of my son’s life. I feel so grateful that he was accepted into this program, and that we were welcomed into the TEACCH family at such an early point in his life. The Parent Discussion Group and Mother’s Support Group have helped me immensely, and I recommend them often.”

Despite ongoing requests from those living outside the state, TEACCH is only able to provide clinical services to North Carolina families. TEACCH’s commitment to serving North Carolina is critical as the number of Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnoses grow. In 2014, under the leadership of Dr. Julie Daniels, the UNC-based North Carolina Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Project identified one in 57 eight-year-old children in the state as having Autism Spectrum Disorder; compared to the rate in 2002 of one in 150.

Klinger emphasizes that funding from the State of North Carolina makes it possible for TEACCH to serve all families regardless of income level, with 55 percent of those served on Medicaid. State support and the flexibility it provides is a major factor in setting TEACCH apart from peer organizations across the country, ensuring access to high quality services for the state’s residents.

At the same time that North Carolina is seeing an increased rate of new Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnoses, the eight-year-olds who were first diagnosed in 2002 are now young adults in need of services and support that differ from those they needed as young children.

“Children with autism grow up to be adults with autism. Autism Spectrum Disorder is not a childhood disorder,” explains Dr. Klinger. To meet the broad and growing needs of North Carolina’s population, TEACCH needs to provide services ranging from very early intervention to transitions into adulthood.

As part of the UNC Autism Research Center, TEACCH is dedicated to providing personalized interventions to individuals with autism across the lifespan. Dr. Klinger’s colleague Dr. Joseph E. Piven, Professor of Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and Psychology and Director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, has developed a methodology for identifying autism at six months of age before behavioral symptoms emerge. The next step is to both confirm that this method works and to develop tools for early intervention at these ages.

At TEACCH, community-based research focuses on supporting young people as they transition to adulthood by working in partnership with North Carolina’s community college system and the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Together, they offer specialized transition programs at six North Carolina community colleges and Dr. Klinger would like to see this programming expand to more community colleges and universities across the state.

Finally, Dr. Klinger and Dr. Piven are jointly embarking on work with people with Autism Spectrum Disorder as they enter older adulthood, considering what support this population will need as their parents age and can no longer care for them.

The depth and breadth of support that TEACCH provides is life-changing for people with autism. One client shares, “What does TEACCH mean to me? Everything. Absolutely everything. We have been part of the TEACCH family for 47 years.”

To continue bringing people into the TEACCH family, the program needs resources for program development and dissemination. Klinger envisions having a member of the TEACCH team who wakes up every day thinking about programmatic interventions at the different stages of a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder’s life—how do we support recently diagnosed infants? How do we support older people with autism? Klinger’s only option for staffing programmatic expansion at this time is to take someone out of the clinic to focus on research and development. The pressing need for TEACCH’s clinical services makes this an unviable option.

An investment of just $500,000 would give TEACCH three years to develop a strategy to meet the needs of the growing population of North Carolinians with Autism Spectrum Disorder—needs that differ at key transition points in the life of someone with autism. This short-term investment will enable TEACCH to develop a long-term, sustainable strategy to provide evidence-based programs and services to the North Carolinians who need them most.

 

For more information on how to support TEACCH, please contact Aron Johnson, Director of Development, at 919-843-9902 or aron_johnson@med.unc.edu.

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