Sarkeys Foundation funds “social coach” program for USAO’ Neill-Wint Center

Recent grant bolsters support program for students with autism spectrum disorder
Recent grant bolsters support program for students with autism spectrum disorder

The Norman-based Sarkeys Foundation recently approved a $20,000 grant to the University of Science & Arts of Oklahoma in support of the institution’s Neill-Wint Center for Neurodiversity, an academic and social support program for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The grant will provide funding for the Center’s PEERS program, in which fellow USAO students serve as social coaches to those in the program, working with them one-on-one as they learn to live independently, succeed academically and deal with the ins and outs of life as a college-age adult. USAO plans to recruit, train and coach 14 new social coaches in the fall 2021 term, the largest class of PEERS to date, as well as adding a Senior Mentor position to serve as an additional advisor.

“Applications to the Neill-Wint Center have significantly exceeded our capacity each year, and we are so thankful to the Sarkeys Foundation for helping us focus on the students who will thrive in the program regardless of their socio-economic status,” said Cathy Perri, the director of the Neill-Wint Center. “This project relates directly to USAO’ commitment to diversity and fostering an integrated student experience—our peer mentors experience meaningful growth in how they celebrate diversity, while their relationships with their mentees serve as an example of inclusivity for all students on our campus.”

Launched in 2017, the Neill-Wint Center assists students with ASD in the transition to college life and helps ensure postsecondary success. The program focuses on a collaborative model that promotes the development of self-advocacy and independent living skills to encourage strong academic and social programs. Varying levels of academic, social and residential support aids students in meeting their personal and professional goals.

In addition to the PEERS program, USAO faculty and staff receive special training to help them interact successfully with ASD students. Students in the program are required to attend weekly tutoring sessions to ensure they are on track in their coursework, and their peer mentors also attend weekly coaching sessions with Dr. Karen Karner, assistant professor of speech-language pathology, in which she challenges them to try new social activities or new approaches to social engagement.

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