UA Little Rock graduate finds calling in social work


A University of Arkansas at Little Rock student who is graduating this spring plans to use her Master of Social Work degree to help other adults who are neurodivergent.

A native of Monticello, Leslie Beard went back to school in 2020 to pursue a career in social work. The graduate student became a part of a growing number of women who learned they were neurodivergent as adults. 

Neurodivergent describes people with variations in their mental functions, and includes conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and dyslexia.

Once Beard graduates on May 13, she plans to work as a case worker or at an outpatient clinic until she can take the exam to become a licensed clinical social worker.

“My ultimate goal is to have my own private practice, and the community I want to specialize in is the neurodivergent community,” she said. “I am neurodivergent myself. I was diagnosed with ADHD and autism as an adult and not a child. That has created a passion to help other late-identified adults learn how to accommodate themselves. We can celebrate these differences while helping adults learn coping skills to help manage some of the aspects of these disorders.”

Now 34, Beard has only been aware of being neurodivergent for a few short years. She was diagnosed with ADHD at 31 and autism at 33.

“I’ve been diagnosed with other things that didn’t quite fit,” Beard said. “Other diagnoses like depression and anxiety did not explain things like sensory sensitivity, overload, and even what I thought were panic attacks. As I was doing research, I found out that there were a lot of women who missed diagnoses as children. Women are apparently better at hiding the symptoms and socializing than men.”

According to the Asperger/Autism Network, one female is diagnosed with autism for every three males diagnosed. Furthermore, women tend to be diagnosed with autism at significantly later ages than men and are more likely to experience delays between an initial evaluation and receiving a clinical diagnosis, according to an article in Verywell Mind.

Finding out that she is neurodivergent has helped Beard find an understanding of herself that she feels has been missing her whole life.

“I finally have answers that I have sought for my whole life,” Beard said. “I really could have used support for these conditions throughout my life, but I am glad that I now have accommodations. During my internship at a clinic, they allowed me to use a lamp instead of fluorescent lighting. I wear headphones when I go to the grocery store to help with sensory sensitivity. Little things like these have greatly helped my life, and I want to help other people who were diagnosed late have a better quality of life.”

After graduating from the University of Arkansas at Monticello with degrees in political science and psychology and a minor in sociology, Beard thought social work would be a perfect fit since she loves helping others, is dedicated to social justice, and dreams of working as a therapist in the future.

She’s especially grateful to the School of Social Work’s Behavioral Health Integration Internship Program for giving her broad experience into the field of integrated behavioral healthcare. Funded by the Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas, MSW students at UA Little Rock receive special training before they intern directly with primary health care providers to provide mental and behavioral healthcare at doctors’ offices and clinics in Arkansas.

Throughout the 2022-23 school year, Beard has gained skills and experience as an intern with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ 12th Street Clinic and the Arkansas Behavioral Health Integration Network. At the 12th Street Clinic, Beard is part of a behavioral health team that works with clients who have scored high on depression and anxiety screenings.

“Through these integrated behavioral health internships, I am learning a lot about how physical health goes hand in hand with mental health,” she said. “I’ve learned how important it is to treat the whole person and to be well rounded when we treat someone.”

With the Arkansas Behavioral Health Integration Network, Beard has had the unique opportunity to see the behind-the-scenes efforts of implementing integrated behavioral healthcare in Arkansas, a state that is facing a growing behavioral health crisis. She even got to help plan ABHIN’s first behavioral health integration conference that took place in April.

“I have had the opportunity to attend a couple of mental health work group meetings at the Capitol,” Beard said. “At these meetings, I observe numerous clinicians, doctors, insurance company providers, and legislators coming together to improve mental health care in our state. During my time with ABHIN, I got to see firsthand the incredible amount of collaboration and effort it takes to gather funding and resources, create, and deliver training, and much more that is needed to make IBH work.”

With graduation fast approaching, Beard is excited to start the next chapter in line.

 “I am very excited to graduate,” Beard said. “I’ve learned a lot in the last 3 ½ years about myself, what I want to do in the future, and where I want to take my career. I am proud of myself for all the hard work I put in, and I am looking forward to being able to use everything I learned.