When Laurence Walker ’24 enrolled at the University of Lynchburg, one of his goals was to help students like him who identify as neurodiverse, an umbrella term that includes attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, dyslexia, and other conditions.
“I [wanted] to help others not go through the same problems I did,” he said.
In Walker’s case, what the Cleveland Clinic defines as “having a brain that works differently from the average or ‘neurotypical’ person” was caused by a series of strokes. Between ages 25 and 34, Walker had four strokes caused by a rare form of blood cancer.
“The hardest thing for me is I have ups and downs with how my brain functions, and being an unseen disability, it’s hard for people to understand,” the educational studies major with a minor in disability services said.
Walker went from being a third-generation pastor with a successful career in the insurance industry and dreams of attending medical school to being told by doctors that, as he put it, “I would never be able to do anything again, especially learn.”
He came to Lynchburg to prove them all wrong and said, “If there’s no statistic that says I can do it, then I’ll be that statistic.”
Once on campus, Walker approached special education faculty member Dr. Cindi Spaulding about starting an affinity group for neurodiverse students. As it turned out, it was already on her radar.
Spaulding, associate professor in the College of Education, Leadership Studies, and Counseling, had been talking with Meg Dillon ’17 MEd, executive director of the Advising and Academic Resource Center, about forming an affinity group for students who identify as neurodiverse or have other disabilities and for peers who wish to serve as allies.
“When students have a disability in K-12, support and resources come to them,” said Spaulding, who is neurotypical but has close family members who identify as neurodiverse. “They transfer into higher ed and services don’t come to them unless they self-advocate.
“Low numbers of students disclose their first year [and] they have to go it alone.”
Spaulding added that one of the group goals is to “destigmatize what it means to be neurodiverse or have a disability or have a mental health disorder” and to “encourage self-advocacy.”
Dillon, who previously served as Lynchburg’s assistant director for the Center for Accessibility and Disability Resources, said the group also celebrates “the unique ways that we learn and engage in learning.
“A lot of times, people who are neurodiverse see the world in a different way. Instead of categorizing it as a disability, it allows for different perspectives, different ways of thinking that haven’t been accepted in the past.”
Aided by a grant from Lynchburg’s Office of Equity and Inclusion, the Neurodiverse Student Alliance was founded in the spring of 2022. Walker is one of the group’s co-presidents.
In the fall of that year, he and another group member presented a Courageous Conversation — a speaker series sponsored by OEI — where they talked about what it’s like to be neurodiverse.
Group members, along with Dillon and Spaulding, also participated in a teaching and learning conference on campus. “We put in a proposal that Meg and I would facilitate a panel discussion,” Spaulding said. “At this conference, where professors were sharing their expertise, our students presented to faculty on creating inclusive classrooms.”
Walker said being a member of the group and speaking to others about being neurodiverse has “helped me get my confidence back in leading and speaking. It’s helping me plant signs of change that can continue to grow even after I graduate.”
Dillon and Spaulding envision other initiatives that will raise awareness and provide support for Lynchburg’s neurodiverse students.
“Maybe do some outreach to the campus community, something on the Dell,” Dillon said. “Passing things out to get the community more engaged and partnering with other OEI student groups — encouraging that — to have those allies supporting them as well.”
A mentoring program also is in the works, in which an upperclassman who identifies as neurodiverse would be paired with a first-year student, who also identifies.
“The Neurodiverse Student Alliance provides a space for students to connect with peers and allies and offers them leadership opportunities and opportunities to advocate across campus,” Spaulding said.
“Through the different initiatives, there has been a greater understanding of neurodiversity. Before starting this group, neurodiversity wasn’t normally thought of as an element of diversity on campus.”
The group will also continue its outreach to the local community, which they started doing this past spring. In April, with funds from OEI, the group purchased a windchime for a new “sensory garden” at Camp Kum-Ba-Yah Nature Center in Lynchburg.
“We were thrilled to receive the sensory garden wind chimes from the Neurodiverse Student Alliance at the University of Lynchburg,” said Amy Bonnette, the nature center’s executive director.
“We plan to continue this partnership by building friendships and gaining new insights and perspectives from the neurodiverse community. As a fellow EdD student [at Lynchburg], I’m glad the University of Lynchburg celebrates its neurodiverse community by creating an alliance student group.”
Aaron Albright ’24 MEd, the group’s other co-president, became involved in the Neurodiverse Student Alliance after hearing students speak at that Courageous Conversation. While he doesn’t identify as neurodiverse, he supports the group and its mission.
“I was born with profound bilateral hearing loss, i.e. deafness,” he said. “I wear a cochlear implant in my right ear. I do not hear in my left ear. I’m a master’s student in clinical mental health counseling and have dedicated much of my time, efforts, and work to researching, advocating for, and working with people with disabilities, like myself.
“I know how hard it is to find community and to transition into college life as someone who has a disability, so I’m passionate about community building and diversity, equity, and inclusion. The Neurodiverse Student Alliance is just one way in which people could be included, find community, and advocate for themselves and others, so I wanted to be involved to help grow the community.”