When Big Bird met Julia earlier this year, it was an important moment, even if they didn’t hit it off at first.
The iconic yellow bird was dismayed when the new character didn’t make conversation, or return his high five. But soon he was hopping behind her in a special game of tag she created. And so the “Sesame Street” world welcomed its first character with autism.
Among Julia’s most ardent fans was Laura Klinger, a longtime autism researcher and director of the TEACCH Autism Program at UNC-Chapel Hill. She served as a consultant with the program as the character was created.
“It is such a fabulous depiction of autism, and from my perspective it will really raise awareness and create more acceptance for children with autism,” Klinger says. “I was thrilled.”
TEACCH designs, evaluates and disseminates programs to help people with autism across the state, and increasingly beyond. Founded in 1972, the program is known worldwide for the techniques it has developed to help children who are diagnosed with autism develop language and social skills.
The program is also increasingly focused on helping the growing number of adults with autism transition into college or work. The prevalence of autism among children doubled from 2002 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meaning the number of autistic adults is poised to double as well.
UNC-CH researcher Joseph Piven says that while Klinger’s work with public television has brought her into the spotlight, it hardly hints at her larger accomplishments.
He’s working with her on a study of adults with autism, and says she’s been effective in maintaining TEACCH’s emphasis on early detection and intervention while expanding its research and programming aimed at the growing number of autistic adults.
“Laura has made a lot of advances and done a lot of cutting edge research, but she also puts a lot of emphasis on the service learning aspect of the work,” says Piven. “She has a wealth of experience that has enabled her to get a running start and further TEACCH’s impact.”
Her dream job
Klinger grew up in California, and went to college knowing that she wanted to work with children. Her freshman year, as part of a social work class, she was placed in a high school classroom that included severely impaired autistic students.
She immediately loved working with the students, and has focused on autism ever since – an early experience that solidified her belief in service learning.
While earning her doctorate, she did an internship at TEACCH in Chapel Hill, and always had an eye toward returning.
She took a faculty position at the at the University of Alabama, where she led a research clinic on autism spectrum disorders and spearheaded a program for college students with autism. After 18 years there, she returned to Chapel Hill in 2011 to become director.
“This is absolutely my dream job,” she says.
As director, Klinger holds trainings and speaks worldwide, and is often called upon to share her expertise at events and conferences.
She oversees the seven clinics across the state that serve people with autism in their local communities. TEACCH also trains special education teachers statewide on effective techniques for teaching autistic students.
A new pilot program, created with the state community college system and vocational training division, is helping prepare teenagers with autism for college and work by teaching them skills such as scheduling and managing conflict. The free program started this summer, and includes a volunteer internship where students work at a college.
She’s also on the board of Entrepreneurial Ventures, a local nonprofit that creates businesses specifically to employ adults with autism.
“She has her focus on the whole country and world, and yet she’ll come over and we can talk about an individual who we’re having a hard time placing,” says Paige Morrow, the group’s managing director. “It's amazing that someone of her stature and position can be so accessible.”
Working with ‘Sesame Street’
Her experience with “Sesame Street” is another example of Klinger’s wide-ranging outreach. Five years ago, she was invited to join a an advisory group of researchers, clinicians, parents, advocates and adults with autism.
They met for two days early on, offering advice on the character that first showed up on a website devoted to resources for parents of autistic children. Later, the show’s writers sent specific questions, and eventually asked the group to review the script of the show introducing Julia.
While there is no “average” autistic child, Julia’s behavior includes common characteristics, including repetitive behaviors.
The other “Sesame Street” characters discuss how Julia might behave in unexpected ways, but is still a good friend, a lesson Klinger hopes a generation of youngsters will internalize.
“This generation will grow up being more accepting of people with autism, not just in preschool but throughout their lives,” she says.
She has other hopes for the show as well. Studies show that parents also watch the show, and seeing the symptoms of autism on TV might help remedy a nagging problem in treating the disorder: the late diagnosis of many children, particularly in rural areas.
“If the parents bring their children to the doctor sooner because they saw those symptoms on “Sesame Street,” that’s an amazing opportunity to diagnose children at a younger age,” Klinger says.
Laura Grofer Klinger
Born: May 1963, California
Residence: Chapel Hill
Career: Director, TEACCH Autism Program and Associate Professor of Psychiatry, UNC-Chapel Hill
Education: BA, Human Biology, Stanford University; PhD, Clinical Child Psychology and Developmental Psychology, University of Washington at Seattle
Family: Husband David; two children