Students in the Neill-Wint Center for Neurodiversity happy to jump back into campus life this fall
The University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma began the Neill-Wint Center for Neurodiversity in Fall 2017 with a simple goal: providing the kind of interpersonal support that students with autism spectrum disorder need so that they can successfully pursue a bachelor’s degree. It was the first program of its kind in Oklahoma and one of only a handful in the entire country. As the Center enters its fourth year, it is proud to boast a 100 percent retention rate for the first time, and it is running at capacity with a roster of 14 full-time students, including five new admissions this semester.
“We are thrilled to welcome everyone back to campus this fall! And our new students are all an extremely good fit academically,” said Cathy Perri, assistant to the president and director of the Neill-Wint Center. “Based on what USAO has to offer and the rigor of our classes, we’re learning the kinds of personalities that will really be successful in this environment.”
To be admitted to the Neill-Wint Center, students must have a medical diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and must meet USAO’s admissions criteria, which are some of the most stringent in the state. As a Drover, each Neill-Wint student has an individual social coach dedicated to helping them navigate the ins and outs of college life. These coaches are drawn from among the USAO student body and undergo extensive training so that they can respond to the needs of someone with autism sensitively and effectively.
“We do a lot of writing at USAO, which is something that a lot of students on the spectrum struggle with,” said Perri. “They really excel at rote learning and memorization, so when they are given the opportunity to tell people what they think or express themselves, that’s a whole new thing.”
A mainstay of any student’s experience is the interdisciplinary studies curriculum, a required core of classes designed to give students a thorough grounding in the arts, humanities and sciences. These courses require students to engage with each other and with their professors in complex, at times challenging, discussions of ideas and beliefs.
“The kind of back and forth that goes on in those classes—where they can’t just tell you the answer but have to tell you what they think—has been certainly challenging, but it’s really been helpful in making our students more flexible in their thinking and more adaptable in different situations,” said Perri.
In addition to their individual social coaches, every student in the Neill-Wint Center has a weekly meeting with Sean Risinger, the center’s program coordinator, to go over their workload and ensure that they are keeping up with their academic requirements. Each student’s coach also attends this meeting so that they are aware of any potential anxieties related to upcoming tests or other projects. When any of the center’s students are struggling academically, they are required to attend sessions at USAO’s Student Success Center, which has many dedicated tutors sensitive to the particular needs of students with autism. Neill-Wint students can also arrange to take their exams in the SSC without a time limit, a common source of unmanageable anxiety.
Despite this semester beginning in the midst of a pandemic and with the atmosphere within any higher education institution being relatively charged, the students in the Neill-Wint Center are providing a shining example of the Drover Spirit in quickly adapting to the new and constantly changing protocols being designed to ensure health and safety.
“For students this spring, it was certainly a let down to have to go back home, because they were really enjoying getting a taste of independence from their parents,” said Perri. “There was definitely some anxiety since no one knew what to expect for a while, but they really all made it through okay. Luckily all of our students have computers, and they all have solid internet connections at home, so we could still do their weekly meetings with our coaches and staff, and they could attend their classes without issue.”
A big part of the Neill-Wint Center’s social coaches’ job is to help students learn how to manage their time. Going from the relatively rigid structure of a typical high school to the highly individualized, shifting schedule of a college student can be especially difficult for young people on the autism spectrum, and some of the center’s students have focused on their collegiate social lives to detriment of their studies. So adjusting to the stringent social distancing guidelines now in place has taken a toll, but thanks to the center’s support, this stress has been mitigated considerably.
“I think in some ways it was easier for our students to deal with all of these changes because they have this built-in support system with their social coaches and a weekly call with all of us,” said Perri. “Where a lot of the neurotypical students were just thrown into it without that kind of structure. We were really lucky in that respect this year.”
Now that in-person instruction has resumed, Neill-Wint students are happy to be back on campus with their friends and are not letting fears of COVID-19 take away from their college experience. Aside from adjusting to the new protocols about masks and food service and figuring out occasional technical issues, they are eager to get back to the inspiring and intimate classroom experience that makes USAO such a special place.
“We actually had a young man who had planned to transfer to another college to be closer to home, but as he enrolled and saw the campus and that he wasn’t going to have near the level of support that he would have here, he changed his mind and decided to stay,” said Perri.
This support system is hardly limited to the staff of the Neill-Wint Center itself. The close-knit relationship between faculty and their students is one of USAO’s most distinctive features, something that alumni from every era of the school never fail to mention. As the Center’s first students started their college educations, USAO professors again showed their extraordinary dedication to shaping young minds and sharing their wisdom.
Academically, Neill-Wint students show a broad cross-section of interests: while history and art make up a majority, several have discovered a love of theatre and are considering a minor, others are more oriented towards the sciences and one has picked multidisciplinary studies, a major unique to USAO which allows the student to pick four areas of emphasis and develop a course of study that synthesizes the knowledge and methods of each one.
“Our faculty has been really extraordinary across the board,” said Perri. “I have been amazed at how receptive they have been at adapting their teaching to the specific needs of our students and going the extra mile after class when a student needs more help.”
This program relies on private support in order to continue to serve students in these life-changing ways. If you or anyone you know might have an interest in helping secure the future of the Neill-Wint Center, please contact Perri at firstname.lastname@example.org.