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Akshay Shanbhag: Beyond Boundaries and the Rhythms of Success

Hello, this is Akshay Shanbhag. I am currently an intern at IIT Mumbai doing augmented reality, after passing out of IISER Pune in December 2023, and am awaiting a BS – MS degree certificate, as I will receive it in May 2024.





I was born on the 22nd November 2000, in the City of Dreams, i.e. Mumbai. I was detected with autism at the age of 1.8 years, when I used to not respond, as I was enrolled in a nursery school (called Moondrop Nursery School) around this time. The BERA test was done, once the school told my parents that I would not respond when prompted, however it failed as the reports came negative, then we were referred to Ummeed Child Development Centre, in Mumbai.


There is a doctor called Mrs. Vibha Krishnamurthy, where she said that I do have mild autism, with an emphasis that there is no cure for autism as such, and she referred us to Mrs. Palak Parikh for speech therapy which so far is the only way to mitigate the symptom of poor speech, which is usually present in autistic individuals. Within a few months, I picked up my speech and even managed to top the class during my time at the nursery school. Then, through an interview, I got admission in Bishop’s School, which isn’t a mainstream school, to support autistic individuals. I tried for a few months, but was unfortunately expelled for biting a child, and my parents decided to put me back into Moondrop Nursery School.



After completing my senior KG, Mrs. Vibha, recommended that I be admitted to Vidya Valley School next, as it’s main stream school with good counselling support. We found this school far, but more importantly it was mainstream. In the admission test, I passed for the first and second standard admission as well, so we consulted Ummeed and they recommended us to admit me in first standard due to the social skills issues that could arise, and so was admitted in the first grade. Till the second standard or so everything was going fine, but from third standard onwards, due to the presence of multiple subject teachers, I needed a shadow teacher (who doesn’t teach but can be a helper), in order for me to stay calm and not distracted during the classes of different subjects.


The shadow teacher would sit next to me and as my behaviour progressed, she would move one bench back and then move out of the class and meet me during the breaks for any concerns. This shadow teacher would continue until 9th standard. 



I also faced challenges in making friendships since the third standard, as I used to push them, break their bottles and do all mischevious things. For this reason, the school counsellor and Healing Light Awardee, Mrs. Vidya Chikte, recommended me to join Arts Based Therapy sessions. These were conducted after school, and the counsellor used to invite more children (specially those with special needs) of different classes to join. It may have taken time, but eventually I got more friends, with the counsellor giving various tools that act as a healing light and they are various forms of art (drawing, drama, drum circle etc.). My journey of drumming also started,  thanks to ABT sessions as during the opening prayers, I was more comfortable to play an instrument that was provided rather than singing along together with the others. Drumming classes started from class 7 onwards, till class 9 they were in school hours, from class 10 onwards, I go for classes at other venues. I am trained by Mr. Zubin Balsara who is a music therapist as well.



Everything was setup well, until academically I found the following concerns


1] Handwriting and Writer issue- Usually my handwriting was not legible especially during the exams, so initially my parents in collaboration with Vidya Valley School decided to go for a writer, for all papers (barring mathematics papers) who would write the paper while I would dictate the answer. However, I would get distracted when the writer made a spelling mistake or not write at the same frequency as my dictation. Hence the school told us, that I can type my classwork, assignments, projects and exams on laptop (except maths). For the assignments, they were submitted to the teacher’s email and they take a printout after the exam to be submitted. We got the laptop exemption for the exam, but only after getting a disability certificate and submitting it to the board.


2] Hindi language concern- As one grows, the level of Hindi language and literature gets more and more difficult (especially for special needs individuals), hence the school decided that I can be exempt from Hindi from class 8 onwards, they also applied for the much needed permission for the exemption from second language, which I got after submiting a disability certificate.



For the tenth board exam, in collaboration with my counsellor at Vidya Valley School, we got a visit to the board exam centre for a better view. This enabled me to show that sense of focus as I passed out with distinction from Vidya Valley School. 



After passing out from Vidya Valley School, Ummeed recommended that I be admitted at Orchid School in Science stream (PCM) for class 11th and 12th as well as preparation for IISER/ IIT entrance examinations. However we could not get the laptop exemption in the right time as it was a different board altogether. The exemption notice came at the last moment before the board examination, hence decided to write all my papers. Again just like tenth board exam, in collaboration with a counsellor, I got a visit to the board exam centre for a better view, to enable me to show that sense of focus as I passed out with distinction yet again. Midway I also cracked an IISER entrance exam and an interview in 11th standard itself to get my admission at IISER confirmed, and later after 12th boards cleared JEE Mains and Advanced, the latter exam for IIT admissions.



I joined IISER w.e.f 31st July 2018, however the start was dreadful, as I was not able to adapt to the new conditions since students came from all over India and I was not able to communicate or adjust with them properly. So my parents had a chat with the IISER counsellor, who eventually said that Mrs. Vibha can come to IISER and have a chat with the counsellor and the students of my batch. It was also decided, that I be allowed to stay in the hostel alone, as a result of poor communication with the roommate that I originally got at the time of admission.


The first three semesters were going satisfactorily until the number of incidents at IISER grew, such as entering or trying to enter restricted areas where I don’t have access to, making people uncomfortable and damaging/ tampering with institute property especially of the library. In the fourth semester, I and my drum teacher established the West Pune Music Club and both of us started as founders and coordinators of the club since I never got an opportunity to lead from the front in IISER, amid relatively mediocre academic performances. We started the magazine in May 2020, and relased the first edition of the magazine with a small set of 25 performances. Over time we got more and more performers (particularly those with special needs and from IISER Pune) as I took part in various online shows linked to various WhatsApp groups, amid COVID – 19 pandemic, in order to lift the spirits of these individuals. Today, we have got nearly 700 performers and over 100 special needs individuals participating. In 2022, I successfully completed a decade of drumming and gave a talk of my journey so far until that point. Amid all the drama of not being able to complete the requisite credits due to COVID 19 pandemic, I started my thesis from January 2023.


Even as this was going on, I presented an Earth Science based poster that I made for a semester project for G20 Summit India 2023, as it focussed on a mathematical approach and has applications in tracking cyclones, a result of climate change which this summit usually focusses on. As for the jamming session, amid my thesis, the idea came from my junior from Vidya Valley, Manasvi Baheti, who introduced me to Disability Pride Month, but all it took was two weeks to get everything right. All the logistics, right from printing, security, setup and getting performers for the event were borne by me, while Manasvi would introduce the concept of Disability pride month. We aimed for performers from the magazines we published, but thanks to help and support from Mrs. Prachi Puranik, we got more performers to join for the jamming session.


Eventually on 19th July 2023, 14 performers with special needs (including us hosts) put on a splendid show in the Music Room on the beautiful campus of IISER Pune; this was where my singing was brought to life yet again. We invited our school principal, Mrs. Nalini Sengupta to grace this wonderful event as a chief guest. In December 2024, I defended my thesis and have confirmed a BS – MS degree which will be granted in May 2024 during the annual convocation. Apart from completing my thesis, I also performed outside of Pune for the first time, for a Disability Month event in Mumbai. In January 2024, I got an internship opportunity at IIT Bombay and since then I am working on it. 


For hosting this wonderful jamming session and making several magazines related to music, to bag the Umeed awards in October 2023 and Healing Light Awards in February 2024 is a wonderful opportunity and means a lot to me, as I have given a sense of hope to the special needs by offering a wonderful platform to showcase their talent but also a healing light for special needs as their spirits are raised even during the COVID 19 Pandemic, as we were publishing the magazines. Such awards are an essence of providing hope and throwing light on a giving a healing touch, which is basically doing something good for the society.



About Nanhaa Gyan Foundation:

Nanhaa Gyan Foundation, founded by Romal Surana, is a counselling center dedicated to empowering individuals and special needs by providing education, support, and opportunities for personal and academic growth.


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