Projects aimed at helping employers support workers with autism and improving North Carolina residents’ ability to test private well water have received the annual C. Felix Harvey Award to Advance Institutional Priorities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Laura Klinger, executive director of the UNC TEACCH Autism Program and an associate professor in the UNC School of Medicine’s department of psychiatry, will lead a team developing a “neurodiversity toolkit” to help companies address challenges faced by employees with autism, such as social expectations and time management in the workplace.
The toolkit will feature a series of online e-learning modules, enabling companies to train their human resources staff and supervisors to support employees with autism. These modules will be created in collaboration with the TEACCH Employment Services team and local businesses (SAS Inc., Credit Suisse). The companies will pilot the program next year with the goal of making the toolkit available online to companies across the world.
“Across the country, one in 54 children have a diagnosis of autism,” Klinger said. “As they grow up, we are committed to creating opportunities for successful adult outcomes. The C. Felix Harvey Award allows us the opportunity to work with local business to create a toolkit that can support businesses and employees with autism here in North Carolina and across the world.”
At least 40% of adults with autism have average or above-average cognitive ability and the potential for successful and sustainable employment. However, research shows that less than 10% of these adults with autism are employed.
“Our toolkit focuses on supporting the employer and the workplace as the context for successful employment for adults with autism,” Klinger said. “We know that companies with a neurodiverse workforce report increased revenue, productivity, innovation and enhanced reputation with customers. Our goal is to help businesses create a neurodiverse workforce that includes employees with autism.”
To ensure the toolkit meets business needs, the project team will collaborate with the Linking NC with Innovative Talent Program, a statewide public/private partnership of government, nonprofits and employers dedicated to creating internships for adults with autism. The team also will collaborate with campus partners by integrating the University’s clinical and research knowledge of autism as well as business entrepreneurship expertise. In addition to Klinger, the team’s core members are Nancy Bagatell, associate professor in the UNC School of Medicine’s department of allied health sciences; Michael Chapman, director of TEACCH’s Supported Employment Program; and Danielle Pavliv, senior diversity and inclusion manager at SAS.
The well-water testing project will feature a mobile application that private well owners in North Carolina can use to rapidly assess and interpret results derived from existing low-cost tests for lead and E. coli contamination. Users can also allow the app to share results with county and state health officials to help them implement measures to promote well-water quality, storm resilience and public health.
More than 3 million North Carolinians rely on private wells, which are more vulnerable to contamination than public water systems. Two contaminants of particular health concern are lead and microbial contamination. Lead contributes to irreversible cognitive and developmental impairment in children, while diseases caused by microbial pathogens can stunt growth or even be life-threatening in infants and people with compromised immune systems.
“Rapid, low-cost testing methods that are easy to use can complement robust, ongoing testing by state and local health departments to help empower individual users who have wells to protect the safety of their drinking water,” said Mike Fisher, a researcher involved with the project and a senior researcher at the Water Institute in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. The project team also includes Emanuele Sozzi and Megan Stallard from the Gillings’ department of environmental sciences and engineering, and Aaron Salzberg, director of the Water Institute and the Don and Jennifer Holzworth Distinguished Professor.
The interdisciplinary team will develop, pilot and test the app with dozens of private well users in two North Carolina counties, then — after making any needed improvements — release it statewide at no cost. The project aims to have a functional early version of the app available within one year.
The Harvey Award is funding the two projects with $75,000 each. The award recognizes exemplary faculty who reflect the University’s commitment to innovative engagement and outreach that addresses real-world challenges.
The late C. Felix Harvey was chairman of Harvey Enterprises & Affiliates and founder of the Little Bank Inc., both in Kinston, North Carolina. A 1943 Carolina graduate, he joined his family in 2007 to endow the C. Felix Harvey Award to Advance Institutional Priorities with a $2 million commitment. Five generations of Harveys have earned UNC-Chapel Hill degrees.