Anita Sharma, Dedicated Passionate Hardworking, single Mom, and entrepreneur. Founder of ShineAvi and Attach Avi Autism Foundation talks to TIO
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By Adam Rizvi, New Jersey, TIO: Hello, Ms. Sharma, thanks for taking time out to speak to us. Tell us a little about your passion for Autism.
Well, my heart is very close to this work. I just don’t know how to explain, but I have made it my life’s mission to make this world more inclusive and accessible for families like mine.
What is autism? How is it caused? Is there a cure?
Autism refers to a broad range of conditions that can affect a person’s social and communication skills, behaviors, and sensory perception of the world. Each person with autism is different and should be treated as such. Unfortunately, we do know not what causes this and we do not have a “cure.”
However, we know that behavioral interventions and certain therapies can make it so that an individual can live as independently as possible. People with autism can hold jobs, have relationships, and enjoy all of the wonderful things life has to offer, just like you and me. This is what I aim to create through my foundation and the Shine Avi Learning Centre.
How did you start this work?
Both of my children were diagnosed with autism at a young age, so this work is personal to me. With my second child, I was told he would never walk, talk, or be able to hold his head upon his own. I remember how devastated I felt by this news and I didn’t know where to turn. I relied on my own research and through intense therapeutic work, we beat all the odds. My son Avi, for whom both my foundation and learning center is named, not only walks and talks, but he dances, has friends and even has a job.
As my sons got older, I wanted to make sure that their teenage years were no different from those of their typical peers. I also wanted to meet other parents like me. I started hosting parties in the basement of my home for my son’s classes, which then grew into multiple, large-scale events a year. From that I launched the Attach Avi Autism Foundation, providing respite and education to families with children with disabilities.
But I knew my work was not done there. Parents and children didn’t need just opportunities to socialize, they needed help getting therapy and services. In 2018, I launched the Shine Avi Learning Center and a number of programs for families with children with autism to get the help they need.
What kind of difficulties do parents of children with autism face?
For many in our community, support is difficult to find and the stigma is huge. In our culture, people think that if your child is diagnosed with a disability, then you must have done something wrong as a parent. That is simply not true. But this can mean that family members can turn their back on you or it’s hard to find help with your child. Services are not readily available in many areas and it can be very isolating to try to navigate the system yourself. Many of the families we serve are first-generation immigrants adapting to living in a new country, so that adds another layer of complexity to this journey too.
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I believe that if the child does not learn in the way that we teach, we must teach in the way the child will learn. Through my work, I have made it my mission to make education and independence more accessible to children with autism.
Through my work in leading the Shine Avi Learning Center, we provide interventional education to both children with autism and their parents alike. This is unique. Many programs just focus on the children, but we include the parents in what we teach, too. We offer a variety of supportive services including customized and individualized educational plans, therapeutic schooling, and mentorship for parents.
What are some of the programs the Shine Avi Learning Center Offers?
We offer a few different programs to meet families at different stages in their journey. Our most popular service is the “My Whole Child Program.” We deliver customized social, emotional, and educational early intervention programs for young children diagnosed with autism and teach lessons in either 1-1 or group settings.
We also offer a service called “HOPE: Help Our Parents Educate”, which is a boot camp designed to mentor parents in how they can best support their children. We also offer social groups where children and teens have the opportunity to practice important skills like holding conversations, teamwork, friendship, and problem-solving skills.
We have an incredible team of dedicated educators, community leaders, and parents with decades of direct experience. Our curriculum is unique to us, but it is grounded in the teachings of evidence-based behavior techniques.
Is the program available to people out of New Jersey?
The most beautiful thing about our program is that we make the parents teachers for their children.
We believe that if we teach parents they can work with the most passion and also they spend maximum time with the child.
We evaluate the child and then set up goals on a weekly basis, we teach the child once a week or however many times the parent wants and then work until the child achieves the goals.
This way they are not only spending less money but also at the same time becoming aware of the challenges their children have and can work towards them.
We also do monthly review meetings to discuss the progress and also make sure if the program is working smoothly.
What kinds of results have you seen through this work?
We’ve had children come to us completely non-verbal and unable to make eye contact. Or we have had children come to us that are aggressive, harming themselves or attacking their family members.
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Through our therapy and education, we have seen children learn to talk, overcome aggressive behaviors, and become more independent. Many children that have completed our programs have become declassified from special education and no longer meet the criteria for having an autism spectrum disorder.
What are some of the challenges you face in this work?
I think the stigma parents have around this is the biggest obstacle I face. Oftentimes, I will meet a child that is clearly presenting signs of autism and I know that our services can help, but parents do not want to accept the diagnosis. They don’t want people to think that something is wrong with them or wrong with their child. Or they might want to wait and see if their child will “grow out of it.”
That’s just not going to happen. The faster a family can accept a diagnosis, the faster we can help them and the more likely it will be that their child can lead an independent life. Waiting only hurts the child.
What is something you would say to a parent or family member of a child that was just diagnosed with autism?
First and foremost, I would say that this is not your fault and that you are not alone. There is help and support out there for you. It might feel discouraging or frustrating when you first start out but don’t stop trying.
Getting help as early as possible for your child can make a huge difference in their abilities later in life. You will need to put some work in, but things can get better. The fastest way to do that is to build a community of people around you that understand and support you in this journey.
Where Do you see your program % yrs from here?
When I started the program it was from my home and then we opened a center in Edison.
In no time I saw parents from far-off towns were also interested in sessions and I saw they had a lot of challenges commuting, so I looked for ways that can make programs reach the people who are far from the center.
I started doing virtual classes and now it’s very successfully being run virtually too.
With the virtual thing, I was even able to take students globally and this then became a bigger dream.
Now I have students from many states in the Us and also across the world.
Five years from now I see the program reaching many people who are looking for help with their child anywhere in the world.
Compiled and Curated By Humra Kidwai