Interview by Jenny Bristol
Illustration by Rebecca Burgess
Hari Srinivasan is a minimally-speaking autistic advocate and college student at UC Berkeley, California. He works tirelessly as a student, research assistant, and teacher. He is a Psychology major with a minor in Disability Studies, and so far has a 4.0 GPA and is Phi Beta Kappa. At UC Berkeley, he teaches a class about autism, and this summer he will be starting an independent year-long research project on autism as a Haas Scholar. Hari has a passion for learning about a variety of disabilities, as he feels it helps him understand autism better and gives him a broader perspective on the challenges that many people face.
Hari has been featured on President Obama’s Instagram to help celebrate the 30th anniversary of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and is a student journalist at the Daily Californian. He’s active on his college campus, even serving as the first nonspeaking autistic president of the student organization Spectrum At Cal, working to expand their outreach efforts and promoting “belonging” over mere “inclusion.” He also serves on the board of ASAN (Autistic Self-Advocacy Network), one of the few organizations supported by the autistic community, and is a member of the Council of Autistic Advisors for the Autism Society of America.
What does a typical school or regular day look like for you?
A typical day during the pandemic is a lot of screen time, typing or in Zoom, interspersed with maybe a walk, some exercise, music, TV (more screen time), and staring at the view of the beautiful Bay and the Golden Gate bridge from my window.
What hobbies or interests do you have outside of your schooling or work?
Philosophy & creative writing, especially poetry. I have written over 200 poems. Yoga, music, watching football, basketball, cricket, & tennis (I’m learning tennis).
How does being autistic help or hinder your work, schooling, or hobbies?
A multi-modal thinking which uses all my senses, not just traditional audio-visual, can be a huge advantage as you are weaving in many streams of thought and consciousness. The mind is a beauty with its ability to quickly grasp concepts, analyze, appreciate, and enjoy. It’s a tremendous advantage to have this mind as I have to spend a majority of the time on the motor output part. For instance, in Calculus the instructor was writing out all the steps on the board. Even as he started, I had the answer, though if someone had asked me to type out all the steps, that would have taken me quite a long time as that is a motor task. I often feel I am on two complete opposite tracks with my mind and body. If I have to do a motor task, I can get completely lost and disoriented and distracted even between point A and B. Honestly, that part is tremendously frustrating and drags me down and leads to all kinds of anxiety and more “autism behaviors” which further slows me down.
What kinds of changes or accommodations do you make in your life to allow you to be successful?
I think I am still trying to figure this part out (LOL) as my needs go beyond just the communication part, which is hard in itself. I’m constantly having to look for workarounds for each and everything. It’s the ADHD, oral-motor apraxia, anxiety, lack of body schema, sensory processing, fine motor issues, body coordination issues, obsessive compulsive behaviors, mood regulation, misc. health issues, allergies, etc., all in one package called Hari. There is only so much that goes into the disability accommodations which are very academic oriented.
“So each day is like a new negotiation with my environment which has been quite the task and frankly quite exhausting.”
Much of the time, I’m not really feeling all that successful and quite burned out as I am trying to navigate through my maze of a day, day after day.
Have you experienced discrimination or bullying because of your autism or autistic traits?
Oh yes, all the time. My disability and “autism behaviors” are all too obvious, much of it quite involuntary, though there are still attempts at masking and camouflaging in other areas. So I can get either completely ignored and excluded or stared at with uneasy or disapproving looks in many places. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Many, many instances by educators, neighbors, programs, professionals, and just folk on the street.
What advice would you give to a young or teenage autistic person to help them live their best life, or what advice would you give an autistic adult to help them feel supported in their continuing journey?
No one is an expert on you. No one knows enough about autism to be an expert. Even the “experts” are still learning. So no one gets to have final say on what your limitations, capabilities, & needs are.
What advice would you give parents of autistic kids about the best ways to support their kids in becoming their best selves? What advice from the so-called “experts” do you think parents should ignore? How can parents best support their non-speaking or minimally-speaking children?
Communication must extend beyond just basic wants. Basic wants are just survival. The next step up are needs around school/vocational/skills/interests which are necessary for building self-confidence and getting ahead. But real quality of life is the ability to express thoughts and opinions. So aim for that in communication—irrespective of the communication methodology used and whether it’s via speaking or via AAC.
On the “experts” part, I would repeat the advice to autistics above.
What was one piece of advice you received that helped you be comfortable with who you are?
“The human race is so puny compared to the universe that being disabled is not of much cosmic significance.” —Stephen Hawking
How did growing up without feeling represented in media affect you?
OMG. That was the essence of my recent article titled “Boy Like Me” for the Disability Visibility Project.
How does being a minimally-speaking autistic person affect your experience in higher education and in your advocacy work?
College has been an amazing experience for me as I have found a very supportive environment and faculty in Berkeley. I don’t know if this is the case in other places though. But for all that I get to do, I realize my college experience will still be just a fraction of that of my NT [neurotypical] peers or even my speaking autistic peers.
What kinds of topics do you cover in the college course on autism that you teach?
So it’s a combination of lectures, class discussion, student presentations, and guest speakers and panels. I manage to pack in a lot in our weekly 2-hour classes—from history, education, therapies, issues across lifespan (childhood – adulthood – geriatric), autism terminology, disability law, housing, relationships, family dynamics, identity, healthcare, mental health, translational research, law enforcement, tech, representation in media, and a bunch more. The 12-13 weeks of classes each semester are not enough to pack in all the additional topics I would like to cover.
“It felt so impactful when a former student from Europe recently emailed me to say that takeaways from this class led to her current research work.”
As one of the board members, in what ways do you contribute to ASAN?
I think I both learn and bring fresh perspectives as a both a minimally-speaking autistic and a person of color.
What are some aspects of advocacy work that you find especially fulfilling?
It is the opportunity, that dream, to make a contribution, even if it’s a pebble, that will lend to that huge ripple of change.
On a lighter note, I used to obsessively watch Thomas the Tank Engine as a kid. And Thomas always wanted to be a “useful” engine. I guess I’m being “useful” too, now. LOL.
What would you like to do—given your education, work, and advocacy background—after graduation?
In the immediate future I hope grad school is in the cards for me. I’m passionate about learning and knowledge, and my mind is just thinking all the time and I want to do and contribute so much.
How can readers learn more about the experiences of non-speaking or minimally-speaking autistic people? Are there resources you’d like to point people to, or people online that you recommend following?
Just reading or following what a few of us are writing is not enough. Thought has to translate into action on the ground. Start by interacting with nonspeakers. There will be many in your neighborhood who are getting absolutely ignored or out of sight, tucked away in special education class or day programs. How will you learn unless you interact and start to include? Ask to start buddy programs at school if you are of school age. If a nonspeaker lives on your street, include them in your circle of friends and do things with them. There are many small things you can do at the grassroots level which together will make a huge difference and normalize the presence of every kind of human being in everyday society.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
While it’s nice to see neurodiversity make inroads both in terms of awareness and on the DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] front, there needs to be a bigger effort to include the more marginalized groups like minimal/nonspeakers, and their support needs in such measures and conversations.
What are the best ways for people to connect with you?
I have a bunch of media for interested folks. I write about many things.
- Daily Californian: https://www.dailycal.org/author/haris/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/HariSri108
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/harisri108/
- Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/108hari
- YouTube: tinyurl.com/108hari
“But more than FOLLOW, I want you to think ACTION.”
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