How My Daughter’s Autism Launched My Career As An Entrepreneur

Dr. Stephanie Vavilala is a therapist and a thought leader in the space of autism, and she is also the mother of Sabita, a nine-year-old girl on the spectrum who is non-verbal. She shares with us her journey as an entrepreneur and a mother.

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My daughter’s diagnosis of autism came to define my career as an entrepreneur in the realm of special needs. From the moment Sabita came into this world, she was a miracle to my husband Raj and me. Conceiving a child was our biggest wish, but nothing seemed to work. Eventually we gave infertility treatment a try, and we finally succeeded in getting pregnant. When Sabita was born, we were exhausted, but so overjoyed. Sabita was going to be the most loved child in the world, and we knew it, because we had wanted her so badly. But when she was around two, we noticed that she wasn’t developing at the same rate as other children, and she eventually got diagnosed with autism. This life-changing news came to define my career.

It’s a warm spring day in St. Augustine, Florida, and the sun is beaming over us. I am sitting in my favorite reclining chair looking out at the pool where my daughter Sabita is playing and splashing around, sending a few refreshing droplets my way in the process. Sabita turns to me, with a look of awe on her face, and looks me right in the eye with a mischievous grin. At that moment, I feel like a million bucks. Knowing that my daughter is happy is my reward after a long day of work. And I remember who I’m doing all of this for.

Was I being paranoid?

When Sabita was around two years old, we noticed that something was different about her. I had worked with children before, and I was knowledgeable in child development, but our physician told us not to worry, and all but said that I was being paranoid. But I knew in my heart that something was off. So I eventually had her evaluated for autism, and finally we received the diagnosis. A range of emotions came over Raj and me – confusion, sadness, anger, helplessness… But I have always been a solution-oriented person, and I was never one to let myself get overwhelmed for too long. Very soon, I was at my computer, looking up everything I needed to know about my daughter’s diagnosis, what it could mean for her future, and how I could help.

I don’t do things halfway. This research eventually led me to go back to school to become a certified behavioral analyst. It took me so long to finally have a daughter. Now that she was here, I was going to do everything in my power to make sure she was loved and supported, to make sure she would flourish and thrive. And that extended to every other individual on the autism spectrum. It became my mission to provide support and proper care to children who, like my daughter, were on the spectrum. And that is how my practice started including therapy for children on the spectrum.

The unique challenges of parenting a special needs child

When Sabita was smaller, I was the definition of a helicopter mom. But as she grew up, I became confident that she was flourishing into an incredible individual all on her own. She didn’t need as much help as I thought she did, and I started to understand my role as a parent was more akin to that of a guide. My daughter inspired me to become a thought leader in the space of autism, giving me the unique perspective of both a professional and a parent. The advantage of being on both sides has led to my passion for helping special needs parents get the resources they need to thrive.

I remember how overwhelmed I felt when Sabita got diagnosed, and at that time I wish I had known about all the resources I had at my disposal. And I was only fortunate enough to know about these resources because I was also a professional in that field. But what about other parents of newly diagnosed special needs kids? Are things being done to let them know about the countless resources that can help them navigate this intimidating new reality they find themselves in? It became my mission to raise awareness about these resources to other special needs parents, to let them know that they are not alone.

Only the best for my daughter

I remember how ineffective the public school system was at working with my daughter. Public school is wildly unequipped to meet her needs. So I decided to do everything I could to help her and children like her get equal opportunities to build up the future that they want to have. I am currently working to provide a structure that will meet the needs of those children and their families, to alleviate their schedule and their worries. And this is just one of the many projects I work on tirelessly to provide a future for special needs children, a future that could be much brighter than the one they are being offered at the moment.

So at the end of a long day, juggling work, many passion projects, and my home life, I can look into my daughter’s eyes and see the wonder and pure awe bursting from inside her, and I know who I’m doing all of this for. My daughter is my greatest reward, and the reason I do everything I do. I don’t want to brush over the challenges that come with raising a special-needs child, but at the end of the day, my daughter is the greatest gift I have ever been blessed with, and nothing can ever diminish that.

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