Neill-Wint Center for Neurodiversity’s founders continue their extraordinary support of USAO

Support program for students with autism spectrum disorder recently received major gift
Support program for students with autism spectrum disorder recently received major gift

Although Chickasha’s Kay Neill and Phillip Wint have a long and proud history of supporting their community and especially the University of Science & Arts of Oklahoma, they wanted to do something transformational for the institution, something that would truly change lives.

After meeting with Cathy Perri, special assistant to the president, considering what sort of project would be a good fit with USAO mission, and reflecting on friends and family who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), they helped the university establish the Neill-Wint Center for Neurodiversity in 2017.

“We found that a lot of people with autism were largely ignored by society,” said Neill. “They may be extremely intelligent and talented in certain areas, but they need help learning how to fit in and feel comfortable around other people. We thought, if there were just a way to help these students boost their social skills, then they would stand a much better chance of living a fully-realized, three-dimensional existence in our society.”

The Neill-Wint Center is the first program of its kind in Oklahoma, and one of only a handful in the entire country. Since its inception, this academic and social support program for college students with ASD has run at capacity, the Center saw its first graduate cross the stage in December. Now, the Center’s founders have generously donated another $60,000 to help it continue its mission.

“For years, Phillip and Kay have proven themselves to be some of the most extraordinary friends that this university could have,” said JP Audas, vice president for advancement. “Their latest gift is just another testament to how much they believe in the potential of students in the Neill-Wint Center and in the mission of USAO itself. We are all incredibly proud of what the Center has achieved just in its few years of existence, but none of it would ever have been possible without the steadfast support and exceptional kindness they have shown.”

Any student with a medical diagnosis of ASD can apply to the Neill-Wint Center so long as they also meet USAO admissions criteria. Admitted students have a social coach dedicated to helping them adjust to college life. Drawn from the student body, these coaches undergo extensive training so they can sensitively and effectively respond to the needs of someone with ASD. USAO faculty have also received special training to help them adapt their teaching methods to the needs of each student.

Aside from the social coaches and faculty support, Neill-Wint Center students meet with the program coordinator each week to discuss their workload and how they are managing their academic requirements. If necessary, sessions are scheduled at the Student Success Center, which has numerous tutors sensitive to the needs of students with autism. While USAO’ required interdisciplinary studies curriculum, which forces students to engage with one another and their professors in complex discussions of ideas rather than simply reciting memorized facts, can prove especially challenging for students with ASD, this challenge has been helpful in making these students more flexible in their thinking and more adaptable to situations they may encounter throughout their adult lives.

“The program has exceeded our expectations every year,” said Wint. “It has been amazing to see how fast it has grown and how many students are eager to get in. We were also thrilled at how quickly the faculty got behind the program and really went the extra mile to help these students achieve their potential. This progress has helped the Center become more sustainable and allows it to put more resources towards the students, and that’s what we really care about. It is less about the number of students and more about the kind of activities and quality of life the university can provide for them.”

Even with all the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, students in the Neill-Wint Center have continued to thrive at USAO. Last fall saw all-time high enrollment and a nearly 100 percent retention rate, and, since the program’s inception in fall 2017, its students have earned a cumulative 3.2 GPA. Now, as campus life returns to a more normal pace, everyone involved with the program is looking forward to reaching even greater heights.

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