Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Manisha Lad of The Sensory Pathway Center Is Helping To Change Our World
A difficult journey can have promising results: From the moment Akhil was diagnosed our journey was a very, very difficult one. Our hope, work and the research have manifested into positive results.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Manisha Lad.
Manisha Lad is the Founder of The Sensory Pathway Center, a groundbreaking nonprofit facility dedicated to supporting Neurodiverse individuals. This initiative was inspired by Lad’s own personal journey of navigating life with a neurodiverse child. As a respected individual and thought leader in the neurodiversity community, Lad has worked with reputable individuals such as Dr. Temple Grandin and Deepak Chopra and recently held a Neurodiversity Symposium to help and empower the neurodiversity community on a global scale.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Of course! Our only child Akhil was diagnosed with Autism at 18 months and we were told there is a great chance he will never recover. Doctors provided us with no hope and said he may speak later in life or there is a great chance he will be non-verbal. Both my husband and I were devastated, we felt a sense of guilt and anger but fully accepted his Autism. We quickly managed to understand that many parents, such as us with no background in special needs or the health industry, must also feel the same emotions and knew this was an opportunity we could help and give back to the community. We started to navigate through extensive alternative treatments and slowly started to see results.
Every year our family would take a trip to India and we began to realize there wasn’t enough awareness and or resources to help Autistic individuals. In 2008 we were inspired to launch our non-profit that offered different programs to help families with Autistic loved ones in India. That is where the Akhil Autism Foundation journey began and in 2013 we expanded similar programs in the USA.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
One of Akhil Autism Foundation’s primary goals is educating and bringing awareness to Autism. We believe in many novel evidence based treatments, methods and conduct various workshops.
That led us to the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM). RPM focusses on nonverbal or minimally verbal individuals. With 40% Autistic individuals being nonverbal, the RPM method helps them express themselves using a letter board, assist in academic and many other functional skills. The method was invented by Soma Mukhopadhyay who created this program to educate her nonverbal son who is now an Author and types independently.
In February of 2014, we decided to create an RPM workshop. It was a two-day weekend workshop and eight individuals participated for three sessions total. Five children were from the same school and they all performed very well and showed us the method had an impact on them. The parents were elated! Shortly after seeing the impact on the individuals that participated, I reached out to my son’s school and offered the school a demo. The school did not agree to a demo but instead offered our RPM instructor a tour. Over the following weekend, I received an email from the school’s director that she had arranged a demo at the school with all those who attended the workshop as well as additional students from the school.
The next day all the individuals accepted the invitation, which prompted the school teachers to start training for RPM. Since 2014, we have been conducting these workshops every year. We sponsored one of the workshops in the same school and gave away a grant of $5,500. Not only did we have the opportunity to learn but the school changed the student academics education program to age appropriate education. This is how the college journey started for those who wished to go to college. During COVID there were three individuals with Autism who were nonverbal but could type and were accepted at Rowan College of South Jersey. (RCSJ)
These students, similar to non-verbal individuals such as Elizabeth Bonker, Hari Srinivasan and Davit Tapiddse, are the trailblazers that show us the impact of RPM. For example, Hari Srinvasan is pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience at Vanderbilt University! We are happy to announce our son Akhil Lad who is a minimal speaker type is now a Sophomore at RCSJ and speaker at conferences and audio podcasts. His presentations are converted to a WAV file.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Collaborating with service providers who don’t want to form business relationships. Having worked with them, it is extremely difficult to reach your potential when they don’t have an interest in supporting you, your cause, or vision. Luckily, it was only for a short time.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Since 2009, the Akhil Autism Foundation has helped more than 1,000 families globally. We trained our very first Biomedical doctor in India and since then he has had more than 1,000 families in line for treatment. Our Mission is to educate, treat, research and support Autism. We have collaborated with universities like Rutgers and Virginia University. We have also offered several grants to different neurodiverse awareness programs in India totalling about $80,000 in grants and sponsored a sensory garden at a local university in Mumbai along with a grant. Our podcasts have about 1000+ downloads with more than 500+ hours of education.
After several rounds of fundraising and bringing awareness through AAF, we realized we still needed to do more as parents need continuous support. So in April of 2023 we leased a 2,200 square feet space and built a state of the art sensory gym, Sensory Pathway Center in Dayton, New Jersey. The Sensory Pathway will provide programs like rapid prompting methods, speech therapy, occupational therapy, motor movement, brain development, reflex integration , and horticulture for vocational skills. We will have our grand opening on July 29th.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Alded is this a remarkable 19-year-old adult who is neurodiverse and has minimal verbal abilities. Our incredible RPM journey with Alden began in February 2023 when I first introduced him to the stencil board. Initially, he swiftly pointed to letters from A to Z, but his spelling on the stencil board wasn’t yet fluid. Throughout March 2023, we didn’t witness much open communication or accurate letter-pointing. Nevertheless, we firmly held the belief in Alden’s competence. In addition to implementing RPM, we provided him with an education appropriate for his age. What happened next was truly astonishing.
We allowed Alden the time he needed, and gradually he began vocalizing the letters he wished to express while simultaneously pointing to them on the stencil board. Since then, his progress has never ceased. At the age of 19, he is now even learning Geometry. Alden’s journey serves as a powerful reminder to never give up on individuals and always presume competence.
After successfully launching the “Care for a Friend” social skills program in New Jersey, the Akhil Autism Foundation (AAF) has partnered with HortiHope to expand its efforts by implementing a horticulture training program through the NeuroDiverse Gardeners initiative. The program emphasizes inclusivity and provides an opportunity for individuals with autism to engage with the neurotypical community and benefit from the therapeutic properties of nature.
With an emphasis on promoting job readiness skills, the program will equip participants with valuable skills in horticulture that are highly valued in the Green Industry. This will enable them to pursue various careers in fields such as environmental science, sustainable agriculture, and landscaping.
The partnership between AAF and Horti-Hope has been successful, and they are now taking the program to a local school in New Jersey.
By implementing the program in the school, they are expanding their reach and promoting inclusivity among a wider audience. This initiative represents a significant step towards creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce, where individuals with autism can develop their skills, achieve their potential, and succeed in the Green Industry. Elisabeth Black is a Ph.D. student in Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience at Rutgers University and the creator of the Horti-Hope program.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Yes, provide us grants or any funds. Support our fundraisers, make changes to the policies and meetings with parents. Attend some of the workshops, visit schools and see if the progress is happening is the grant money rightly used. Assign some leaders to meet parents and understand the concerns.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Autism is relatively new to medical and healthcare professionals. While they were studying in the medical school the curriculum didn’t have much Autism, Thus they go by the books and will recommend only FDA treatments which unfortunately are very limited. As a leader one has to bring a paradigm shift and encourage families to look into holistic treatments. Encourage special educators to also accept the non FDA approved interventions and collaborate with researchers who are looking into such treatments.
For example Akhil Autism Foundation has funded two such researches one with Virginia University to develop a tool for nonverbal communication and another with Rutgers university for understanding the teaching style and studying the stress levels for horticulture as a vocational skill. Another leadership example I can give is when two 10-year-old girls visited our house with their friends to meet individuals with Autism. They were part of a Lego project from school and were asked to create a solution using lego for the Autism community. When they met Akhil we planned it well as it would have been very overwhelming for Akhil.
Our son Akhil, who used a letter board for communication, was showing the example to them. 8 kids came and they were sitting in the living room and Akhil and I were in the basement. My husband did a zoom with them and they were blown away with Akhil’s skills. Two girls from the group Sayli Limaye and Sunhani Anand (10 years-old back then) decided to do something about it. They created a logo and program named Care For A Friend. They expressed they want to be friends with these kids and thus a social skills program was created. These are today’s leaders who now interacted with these neurodiverse individuals and did many activities together like painting, bowling, cooking, fitness games etc. They not only changed their perspective but also mine. They were now very comfortable to interact with them even in their schools and had no hesitation to approach them.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.
There are many but the top five are as follows:
- Hope: Many parents or loved ones of Autistic family members lose this after speaking to several medical professionals as soon as they are diagnosed. Hope was what has led us to witness the progress of our son and the many families we have helped throughout the years, more to come!
- Step-by-step roadmap: This came after so much research and alternative medicine but we got there. We encourage parents to do the research and identify milestones in the beginning.
- Everyone’s journey is different: Every child is different so every journey is different. Be patient.
- Stay positive: Too many parents give up hope too soon, staying positive and optimistic is key to this journey.
- A difficult journey can have promising results: From the moment Akhil was diagnosed our journey was a very, very difficult one. Our hope, work and the research have manifested into positive results.
I wish someone had given us a hope and a roadmap step by step of what to do and this journey can give promising results. This journey though is very very tough but it can be positive. When Akhil was diagnosed with Autism I was recommended to a parent and she put us completely on a negative track. But today when we speak to any parent we are always positive and give hope.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Doctors who diagnose individuals with Autism should make a clear statement “We don’t understand Autism. Autism is difficult to understand. It’s important to accept the situation and have a very positive attitude and as a parent follow your instincts. This journey becomes positive if right interventions are done” This is the dialogue doctors and professionals should have with parents. Parents are the game changers. This is the important movement and if they need to create something for the child they must go and do it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
NEVER GIVE UP! As mentioned earlier, we saw several doctors that gave us no hope and were quick to label Akhil’s life journey. As parents, we followed our parental intuition and drive to keep researching and seeking different medical alternatives. It was not easy but seeing our son now, a sophomore at RCSJ, was a far-fetched dream to all of us at once, including the medical professionals that saw him.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
There are a few inspiring people that have inspired our journey along the way. One that comes to mind is Tony Robbins. He’s definitely inspired millions of people through his story and work. We would love to work with him on spreading our story and providing families all around the world with hope that they have the power to become game changers in their autistic child’s life journey. Ellen Degeneres is another great individual as she supports Autism and would be an honor to share our story with her.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you for the opportunity to share my work and story!
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