Autism, a neurological disorder is said to be the world’s third most common developmental disability. Studies estimate that 1 in every 100 children under the age of 10 in India has autism.
The ailment, however, is not black or white; collectively called the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) it is characterized by a diverse group of conditions. Some children on the spectrum face different degrees of difficulty with social interaction and communication while some might develop
atypical patterns of activities and behaviors.
Although autism is one of the most common developmental disabilities yet challenges such as lack of awareness, information, and empathy impact individuals and families alike. The need of the hour is to look at autism with a different lens and find workable solutions to empower children identified with ASD.
Devangana Mishra is a young change agent working towards achieving just that. Through her self-funded think tank, BrainBristle, she aims to empower a select few children on the spectrum of autism to their maximal ability. Unlike entrepreneurs who prioritize growth, Devangana’s focus with BrainBristle is towards building more advocacy and awareness of the work and bringing a few more kids on board to educate into well-settled inclusion.
In a conversation with Women Entrepreneur India magazine, Devangana speaks about the inspiration behind BrainBristle, the challenges she faces, and much more.
What inspired you to start BrainBristle, and what is your mission with the venture?
I love kids on the spectrum. I grew up hanging out with so many as my mother was a clinical psychologist in the small towns we were growing up in and many kids came home to study with her. I believe if we put all our energy, creativity, and science into educating and propelling forward children on the spectrum of autism, we can see wonders.
My mission is to work with a few kids on the spectrum in direct intervention through BrainBristle, work with my alma mater Teacher's College on their research in the subject, and help/ guide/ ideate with others who're truly keen and curious in the space of autism.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about autism that you hope to demystify with BrainBristle?
I think we give up too soon by doing too little, and we think we've done our best for way too long. It's the irony of our lives, with everything.
How do you plan to use technology and innovation to support individuals with autism and their families?
I think technology opens our world to so much, technology today is what movies and books were to our nascent eyes back in the early years- opening us to possibilities we haven't thought of for a child on the spectrum, to what could be and what hasn't been - it is all visible with the simple power of technology- opening pathways for families and truly giving those a shot then giving up and trying and giving up and trying is what I believe is possible with the constant infiltration of technology and innovation.
What kind of research have you conducted or planned to conduct to support the effectiveness of BrainBristle's approach?
I always work in direct intervention, because I trust my instincts in the field, at the moment, the most- so I plan to use BrainBristle's few kids as studies for me to see what's working, what's not, what else, what more and share that as research with universities and policymakers. I believe a lot of academia lacks the direct, draining depth of everyday on-ground work that is required for true research- that's what I hope to continue doing. I had students whom no one could believe could study adapted courses from Princeton and Yale or debate Christianity or American politics or go sit in monasteries or banks for hours or go to university and right now most kids I taught are living that life or life better than I'd thought for them, just through direct, intelligent intervention with them and the core group that provided for them- this is all the research I believe I need to keep doing and more even now than what I'd ever done and share it ahead not just as research but as advocacy and activism.
What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced in building and growing BrainBristle, and how have you overcome them?
I didn't ever want to scale too much, to ensure I do excellence, so how would I earn enough was my first challenge. For an intense field like autism, it's easy for your work to get watered down/ unsexy if it becomes something you do to largely rehabilitate rather than redirect and radically reroute. So I just wanted to earn enough money through teaching at a cost-per-class basis- to make sure both parties [me and the families] invest in the mind-boggling work we're putting in.
But I also wanted to make sure the kids I teach are all going to school- so that my work with them is supplementary to what society already provides to them. Thus, finding additional sources of income which would keep me grounded, and creatively charged yet paying were all needs I had but also hurdles.
It's easy to get superfluous in the world I believe if you spend more time on air than on the ground- so remaining as much behind the scenes as possible helped me remain focused on my work, that's it - I now do a lot of teaching, coordinating and writing for a school I work at through the day, [while the kids I teach at BrainBristle are also at school]. I am a writer, so I focus on writing difficult political poetry to keep the activism in me alive, and with good genes I once in a while model and peep out for friends, the mixture of all this kind of pays me enough to pay my bills.
Breaking even, the way you want to, is always the biggest obstacle when you start something of your own, especially if you're self-funded, and especially if you don't want to take on too much debt or not lose your soul in the rat race of the world.
I'm just glad that within a year and a half, I figured out multiple additional routes of choice for income, it’s still not enough to plan a family and the rest, but one thing at a time, I guess.
How do you plan to work with the broader autism community, including researchers, clinicians, and advocacy organizations, to advance your mission?
I already spoke of this before, but staying in direct contact through my direct intervention with BrainBristle kids professionally, then, in my time, being a writer, thinker, a poet trying to make it in the real big world- helps me understand how much it would take for these kids that I teach to break into the big world. Hustling in the big world, mostly for myself, but also to get a sense of what I need to do for the kids I teach every day is very helpful.
This parallel being is interesting and keeps me thinking on both ends in equal measures of what I need to do and when to pause and what they need to do and how much is enough, when to pause. This dual responsibility bearing, this deep, draining sense of empathy I hold in both roles is what I hope to share with researchers, investors, and advocacy organizations.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs who are looking to start ventures in the healthcare or technology space?
I'm no one to give advice, but I always think deep, excellent, powerful impact over mere technology or healthcare for the heck of it. A technological boom will come to make you some money to last you a few years and then go away, with a faded name somewhere, but true victory is a terrific impact on as many lives as you'd like to imagine, whatever may be your field. To stay focused on that and then let technology do its overtime job of amplification with you intervening and poking every few bits to make sure it's on track and not going haywire is where I'd lean, but again who knows, I'm just an observer.