The University of Louisiana at Lafayette recently hosted a talk dealing with identity, neurodiversity and mental health, especially as it pertains to education and how to better support neurodivergent people.

The talk was held on Sept. 21 as a part of UL Lafayette’s ongoing “Courageous Conversations,” a series of workshops focusing primarily on providing resources for inclusive teaching. Speaking at the talk were Kiwana McClung, UL Lafayette’s chief diversity officer, as well as Reginald Lemelle and Layla Touchet, licensed professional counselors working for Tree of Life Counseling and Consulting.

The talk began with a moment of silence for Elijah McClain, a neurodivergent Black man who had the police called on him as he was walking home. 

McClain was put in a chokehold by police officers, then later injected with ketamine by paramedics at a higher dose than what is stipulated by local protocols. He died six days later on Aug. 30, 2019. Trials for the officers are still ongoing.

Lemelle spoke on McClain’s death, saying his death came as he reacted to being touched in a way that the officers didn’t view as normal, and didn’t care to try to understand.

“Four people were responsible for that young man’s death. A beautiful soul, gone, for the lack of kindness. So if you get anything from me today, that’s it: kindness. Be kind to people,” Lemelle said.

Touchet began her portion of the talk by defining neurodiversity. She described it as an umbrella that multiple disorders may fall under, whether they be from birth or developed later on.

“Neurodiversity is this giant umbrella. When you look at this giant umbrella, it comes down to somebody’s brain is just wired differently. Whether it’s because of ADHD or autism, like they’re born with it. Or, my mom’s neurodivergent in the sense that she has cerebral palsy. Or maybe you acquire later on, where you experience PTSD, or anxiety, or depression,” Touchet said.

Touchet shared her personal experience as someone with ADHD and autism, and spoke on how her mother encouraged her interests and tried to mitigate any struggles she was dealing with. 

Touchet now works with pre-k through second grade students, and said that her neurodivergence is what helps make her the counselor that she is and bring out the strength of the kids she works with.

“Their brains are just wired a little bit wee differently, so they see how certain things can connect. And funny enough if you ask them enough questions, they’ll let you know how it’s connected. It’s so much where if you can hone in on the strengths of neurodiversity, you’d be surprised what those people can accomplish,” Touchet said.

Lemelle works as a crisis therapist, and has 14 days to do what he can for those in crisis.

“In that 14-day period, I get five to six sessions. Each session is two hours long, it’s extremely intensive. That’s three months of normal therapy—50 minute sessions— in 14 days,” Lemelle said.

Lemelle also discussed the school-to-prison pipeline, where disciplinary school policies lead to youths from disadvantaged backgrounds to be more likely to become incarcerated.

“Where does that begin? It begins with little kids in schools, especially minority kids, Black kids, that are tagged with a behavior, and not considered anywhere near on any type of mental health anything. Because they look at it as ‘oh they’re just bad,’ right?” Lemelle said. “They’re less likely to have any identified mental health concerns or issues, and more likely to be responded to in a disciplinary manner.”

Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) was also discussed, which is a condition defined in the DSM-5 as “a pattern of angry/irritable mood, argumentative/defiant behavior, or vindictiveness.”

Its inclusion has been criticized, pointing to a strong bias for Black and Latino children to be diagnosed with it, while white children behaving similarly are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.

Touchet, too, was critical of ODD, saying she hates seeing it on diagnostic paperwork and usually won’t put it down herself.

“It just has so many negative connotations, but what it comes down to, the true thing behind oppositional defiant disorder, is that these are usually kids who are just searching for control in their life in some way,” Touchet said.

Lemelle and Touchet also spoke on autism and how best to communicate and work with those who have autism, saying to create a relationship based on kindness with them and figure out what it is they need to be able to communicate effectively.

“The way I communicate is very different than how some of my autistic kids at my school communicate. So some of them, they need to draw. Some of them, they need to write it out for me, or they need visuals in order to communicate in a different way,” Touchet said. “For me, I can use my verbal skills a lot more easily, but it does have to be more direct. I don’t like beating around the bush or sugarcoating things.”

Students in attendance shared their impressions and takeaways from the talk.

Bailey Singleton, a sophomore majoring in psychology, appreciated hearing the perspectives on ODD.

“It was really interesting with the oppositional defiant disorder thing. Because I’ve been thinking that forever and it felt like a stupid thing to have in the books. Like you can’t just say ‘oh this kid sucks,’ and it was nice to see other people that work with kids be like ‘yeah, you can’t just say a kid is bad forever,’ so that was nice,” Singleton said.

Katie Brusky, a freshman majoring in sociology, was able to personally relate to some parts of the talk.

“For me it was interesting to see that I’ve been diagnosed with a couple of things that fall under neurodivergence, and it was something that I never wanted to acknowledge. And whenever Reggie said ‘If you don’t acknowledge your mental health, you don’t acknowledge yourself as a whole,’ I was like okay, bit of an explosion,” Brusky said.

UL Lafayette’s Courageous Conversations series is ongoing, with more talks in the works, potentially dealing further with mental health issues and neurodivergence.