Invirtua in India: A Conversation with Shreya Jain

Autism awareness and acceptance are global projects. Conversing and working with autistics and autism advocates living outside of the United States allows us to understand vital international perspectives.

Invirtua aims to improve the lives of autistics worldwide. Having helped kids in the United States reduce their anxiety and improve their focus, Invirtua founder Gary Jesch wants to share the Avatar Adventure technology with autism experts around the globe, starting with India.

By working together, we can share not only insights but also resources, technologies, and opportunities. This drive to embrace autism beyond the cultural bubble of the United States has inspired a partnership between Invirtua and Reservoir, a community of neurodiverse individuals and their allies, based in India.

Reservoir’s founder is Shreya Jain of Mumbai, India, an autism advocate with an MBA from NMIMS. Gary was searching for someone to develop an Avatar Adventures program outside of the US, and with his help, Shreya became his first “avatar-pilot” outside of the United States for Invirtua.

Shortly after meeting each other, Shreya and Gary realized that they shared a common mission: helping autistics reduce their anxiety and improve their confidence, so they can successfully navigate both their personal relationships and the social world.

Shreya and Gary agreed that Invirtua’s Avatar Adventure technology could make a great addition to Reservoir’s toolset. Now, after many months of working together, Shreya is a trained avatar pilot with several clients in Reservoir’s own Avatar Adventure program.

We recently sat down with Shreya to talk about her journey as an autism advocate, her vision for Reservoir, and her thoughts on the future of her collaboration with Invirtua. We’re excited to share our conversation with you!

What We See in Shreya

In order to give you a complete picture of Shreya, we’d like to first tell you about her background. Let’s look at what led Reservoir’s founder Shreya to become the autism advocate we know today.

Shreya’s first connection to the world of autism advocacy was growing up with her autistic brother in northern India. Shreya says, “About 18 or 19 years ago, when my brother was first diagnosed with autism, no one had heard of that word where we lived in northern India.” For Shreya and her family, it became normal to fight for acceptance and services for her brother.

Growing up, Shreya wanted nothing more for her brother than for him to become independent. As for herself, she had more ambitious, aspirational goals. Shreya planned to start her own business, inspired by her father, a business owner himself.

Shreya was Involved with the Global Autism Project

After earning a degree in Chemical Engineering, Shreya worked toward her MBA. During this time, she encountered the Global Autism Project. Thinking of her brother, she decided to volunteer, and quickly became engrossed in her work.

Shreya says that after encountering the Global Autism Project, she realized “we could learn so much from what was happening in other parts of the world. There are practices that we could not only culturally adapt but also modify in our own way to make sure that our kids benefit in the best possible way.”

Shreya Wanted to Open Her Own Business in India

Shreya’s work with the Global Autism Project would soon intersect with her goal to start her own business. For three months, Shreya worked on a project with the organization in New York. Her time in New York allowed her to see, firsthand, how autism awareness and acceptance differed between her home in northern India and the most populous city in the US.

Shreya suggests this experience inspired her to start her own company. “While the project was great, something larger along with that also happened. I was working alongside peers who had autism, who had other disabilities, but they had lives much better than my brother’s,” Shreya recalls. “They had jobs; they had apartments; they had girlfriends. They were living life on their own terms, and that’s something that I couldn’t imagine for my own brother, and that was very overwhelming.”

Shreya continues, “So when I came back to India, every day at my job, I would feel a little bit lost, and felt a very, very strong urge to do something in the neurodiversity space—even in India. And that’s when I quit and started working on Reservoir.”

Soon after starting Reservoir, Shreya connected with neurodiverse individuals and their allies to create a community in India to spread awareness, share resources, and push for acceptance for autistics and other neurodivergent people. As Shreya puts it, “We’ve built a community of parents, of siblings, of professionals. So we’ve all come together to create a space where everyone feels accepted.”

Now based in Mumbai, Shreya’s community includes parents, self-advocates, companies, and other allies to help neurodiverse people while embracing diversity.

What came next for Shreya? Meeting Invirtua’s founder, Gary Jesch, and deciding to become an avatar pilot.

How Shreya Became an Avatar Pilot

Once Shreya and Gary decided that the Avatar Adventure program was a good fit for Reservoir, Gary started training Shreya in Invirtua’s 3D Digital Puppeteer™ software. Shreya was quickly on her way to becoming an expert avatar pilot.

To prepare her for the many Avatar Adventures to come, Gary shared his expertise with Shreya. He showed her how to control Invirtua’s digital avatars’ movements and expressions with a tablet program. He walked her through setting up video calls with avatars on-screen. And Gary even offered advice on communicating with autistic children and their parents.

“Gary was very, very methodical in teaching me how I can use this technology in the best possible way—from introducing just the mechanics of it like how we can use the tablet, to helping me set everything up, to even showing how I can talk to the children in a more comfortable manner,” Shreya says, revisiting the learning process to become an avatar pilot. “That’s something I wasn’t very comfortable with in the beginning. I was very scared because I’d never worked with kids before, and I had no experience in that field.”

Shreya and Gary were dedicated to providing Reservoir with an Avatar Adventure program at same level of quality as Invirtua’s own. Shreya explains, “We went step by step, so all along we collaborated on Miro [a virtual workspace]. We would have a checklist and a to-do list. And I think we met very, very regularly. We followed a schedule where we would meet almost every other day at the same time.”

Shreya’s Favorite Avatar

The time Shreya and Gary spent preparing Avatar Adventures for India wasn’t all long hours and hard work. Shreya discovered the joy Invirtua’s avatars bring to young autistics first-hand by learning about Invirtua’s cast of original characters.

If you ask her about her favorite avatar, Shreya doesn’t hesitate to answer: “Kikof is my absolute favorite! I love the way he’s designed. Even if he’s a little bit wobbly, he’s very real. He’s not perfect but none of us are. And even his expressions, when he’s tired or he’s scared, are very comical—and he brings comic relief in the sessions as well.”

Looking at the image of Kikof above, you can see why Shreya finds him so charming.

Shreya as a CEO

While Gary has been a great help when it comes to getting Reservoir’s Avatar Adventure program off the ground, we don’t want to downplay the fact that Shreya is a leader in her own right. Thanks to Shreya’s hands-on, inquisitive approach as the organization’s founder, Reservoir has made Avatar Adventures its own.

As the founder of Reservoir, Shreya is a deeply empathetic leader. She explains, “There’s this huge debate about whether I’m a part of the autism community or I’m a sibling, and I like to believe because my brother is completely non-verbal, I have no choice. I want to understand for him and be there with him. I speak to a lot of self-advocates, a lot of professionals in understanding how we can help him.”

Shreya Connects with Her Clients

As Reservoir’s CEO, Shreya has started a range of clients on their Avatar Adventures. Not all of Reservoirs clients are children; the oldest person they’ve worked with so far is 31. Likewise, not all of those who Shreya works with identify as autistic.

She points out that many autistic people in India are reluctant to share that they’re on the autism spectrum or even seek a diagnosis in the first place: “Some of our clients are not even diagnosed with autism because they just have behavioral issues, and you know, when I meet them, I would get the sense that they have autism, but in India, a lot of times, there’s a stigma or there isn’t a formal language for it.”

Shreya makes clear that, as far as her clients’ needs are concerned, she’s happy to help them even if they don’t identify as autistic. “One of the approaches that we’ve taken is that we’re not going to try and put anyone in a box,” says Shreya. “We’re going to work with an individual as they come without a diagnosis, but also figure out what is the best approach to work with them.”

Shreya Is Planning for the Future

Taking each and every individual Avatar Adventure into account, Shreya constantly seeks to improve Reservoir’s programs.

When Reservoir’s Avatar Adventure program began, Shreya and her team worked with three kids for five sessions each. The reason these first clients were only asked to commit to five sessions was so the children would have just enough time to become familiar with the avatars, so they—and their parents—could decide if the program was a good fit.

Of these early sessions, Shreya says, “The feedback that we got after those was that while sessions are great, it’s very hard to see how the child is making progress, so after those first five sessions, what we started doing was recording data about our sessions a little bit more methodically and more accurately.”

Shreya knows that steady improvement starts with paying attention to the data. Shreya describes Reservoir’s system for tracking a client’s progress: “We have 22 parameters on which we rate each of a child’s sessions. From their speech, to their receptive language, to how attentive they were, everything that at the end informs us about the efficiency of the program. To me, it’s very important to be data-driven, and make sure that everything that we use is clinically backed.”

Looking to the future, Shreya explains, “What we need to do next is standardize these processes a little bit more. What we’re trying to do is find out what parts of the Avatar Adventures we can standardize.”

Shreya Understands the Cultures of India

Beyond her dedication and empathy, Shreya is a remarkable business woman because she has an acute understanding of the cultural differences between the US and India with respect to ASC.

To illustrate the gap in autism awareness between the two countries, Shreya points to a conversation she had while in New York: “I remember this one incident when I was on the subway. As I was talking to somebody, in the conversation I ended up asking, ‘do you know what autism is?’ And the guy just looked at me with shock as if I’ve asked the most stupid question, and that’s when it hit me—the awareness level is so different.”

“Every time I start I conversation back home here, I can’t assume that people know what autism is,” Shreya continues. “It’s polite to ask instead of assuming that they know. And then you can tell them a little bit and have that conversation.”

It’s important to keep in mind that understanding of the autism spectrum is not uniform in any country. Just as some people are more familiar with ASC than others, different parts of any given country tend to be more aware/accepting of autism. Just as there’s no one step we can take to make the whole US embrace autism, there’s no one approach that works for all of India.

As for the growth of autism acceptance in both India and the US, Shreya believes, “In metro cities, awareness level is improving. As a consequence, better services are coming up. I think we have a long way to go because some parts of both of our countries are deeply rooted in stigma. Then, for them to see anything else outside of that, to see science, to see logic, to see how these kids can have more meaningful lives, becomes very difficult.”

Despite these challenges, Shreya believes autism advocates should “raise awareness about neurodiversity, to highlight how a child or adult who learns differently or behaves differently can still be a very, very beautiful person.”

When it comes to improving autism awareness and acceptance in India specifically, Shreya believes cultural and educational movements are the way forward.

“I think multiple efforts have to happen in parallel, so that if we want our entire population to be educated about something, then you have to understand that we’re a very large country, which automatically means we’re very, very diverse,” Shreya explains. “We speak different languages—there are 22 unique languages in India.”

Shreya believes that mainstream media has a significant role to play in normalizing neurodiversity: “In terms of how people with disabilities are portrayed, in movies in India, it’s not the best representation. In my mind, movies in India are the easiest way for that representation to improve. Even if simple shows can be created where people with disabilities don’t even have to be the main character, but are just represented as part of the show, that shows that there are people who are different.”

Shreya also points to education’s role in encouraging autism acceptance, saying, “I think kids can be taught from a very, very young age. When we’re learning about physical health and mental health, we can introduce components of the brain, we can start teaching kids these things from a young age, and that would be really, really helpful.”

To this last point, Shreya adds that a lesson plan related to the brain, it’s components, and neurodiversity is something she would like to incorporate into Reservoir’s learning programs in the future.

Why Reservoir Matters to Invirtua

For Invirtua, Shreya and Reservoir represent an opportunity to bring Avatar Adventures to families outside the US. Likewise, Shreya and her team see Avatar Adventures as a way to offer their clients a service unlike anything else available in India. And for both Invirtua and Reservoir, the chance to share expertise and client feedback is truly invaluable.

On the subject of collaboration, Shreya says, “There are so many beautiful things happening in different parts of the world. If we can make them more accessible to our communities, we don’t really have to reinvent the wheel.”

Avatar Adventures Is Being Shared and Improved

Gary and Shreya agree that there’s always room for improvement. With Invirtua and Reservoir sharing feedback from sessions, it’s become easier to both develop and improve learning programs, which means more children can be helped, more effectively.

Shreya is particularly optimistic about this side of the partnership. “We can always keep improving,” says Shreya. “We have technologies where we can always figure out new applications. That part is very exciting to me.”

Reservoir’s insights have already started enhancing the quality of Avatar Adventures for young autistics in India and beyond.

We’re Working with More Therapists

Thanks to Shreya and Reservoir, more autism experts and therapists are seeing how Avatar Adventures can dramatically improve the lives of young autistics. Shreya, herself, elected to reach out to an audiologist/speech-language pathologist,  Yaashna Haarani.

Shreya explains, “I brought on a therapist before I started working with the kids because I knew that I’m not the best person to actually work with the kids one-on-one. I don’t have the requisite expertise, so the speech-language pathologist and audiologist who’s on board with me now has seven years of experience working with a very wide variety of clients, and she also was able to add a lot of value to how we can use this medium in the best possible way.”

With Yaashna by her side, Shreya has been able to make great strides with the Avatar Adventure program in India. As is the case with Yaashna and Shreya, Invirtua wholeheartedly supports therapists and researchers who want to get involved with the Avatar Adventure program. (Feel free to take a look at published research on our 3D Digital Puppeteer™ software.)

How We’re Learning to Work with Clients and Parents

Working together, Invirtua and Reservoir are continuously learning more about how to help young autistics and their parents. Despite some cultural differences, findings from one Avatar Adventure program offer valuable takeaways for the other as well.

For example, at Invirtua, Gary has often found that parents are first intrigued, then amazed by the Avatar Adventure technology, and Shreya’s experience suggests parents in India aren’t too different. She explains, “Parents are curious about the Avatar Adventure technology. Nothing like this exists in India, for sure. And, in that sense, the novelty of the application is very, very large. I think it piqued a lot of people’s curiosity. And over time, a lot of parents are coming back to us and saying, ‘I think this is great. We can do even more challenging things with the avatar.’”

Working with Parents to Help Kids

Speaking of parents, Gary and Shreya share the belief that parents play a crucial role in helping their children succeed in the Avatar Adventure program.

Here are some steps parents can take to help their child outside of sessions and apply the lessons learned within them:

  • Seek opportunities for conversation with your child about their Avatar Adventures, the interactive avatar, and their sources of anxiety
  • Encourage your child to practice skills learned in sessions by telling them you’re proud of the effort they’re making
  • Join the Autism Animated community to interact with other parents of autistic children and learn more about the condition
  • Work with the Invirtua team to help develop learning goals that are ideal for your child
  • Ask the Invirtua team about our “Family Circle,” where family members of your choice can join video calls and share in the experience

It’s also important for parents to understand that while Avatar Adventures is an instructional program, it doesn’t always follow a traditional teacher-student model. In some cases, the avatar pilot will act as more of a friend than an instructor because reducing anxiety and empowering the participant is at the center of the Avatar Adventure. We’ve found that many autistics respond better when they view the avatar as a helpful sidekick as opposed to an authority figure.

As Shreya puts it, “We don’t just want to help the kids. We want the kids to learn as equals. I’m not the teacher; I’m their friend, and I should talk to them and they should talk to me as peers.”

Creating Content for Sessions

In addition to finding the right approach for working with each client, coming up with the content for an Avatar Adventure takes careful planning.

“The most interesting thing for us is that we can personalize each session for each child,” says Shreya. “There are so many technology solutions out there in forms of games or in forms of products, but the parent may not be able to use those exactly for their child’s needs. What we’re able to do is understand their likes and interests to the best of our abilities and create content around that.”

One of the great benefits of the Avatar Adventure technology is the ability to adjust a lesson plan from one session to the next. By understanding a child’s interests/needs and actively working with parents (as well as with a client’s therapist where possible), the avatar pilot creates a program that does more than just keep someone focused for thirty minutes or so. The Avatar Adventure dramatically reduces a participant’s anxiety and improves their confidence in the long term.

Optimistic Outlooks Going Forward

” I believe that working with Shreya has had a great impact on me and my goals for Invirtua since meeting her,” says Jesch. “She’s an inspirational person and I look forward to helping her realize her dreams of growing and expanding Reservoir while serving her local community.”

“She is helping validate the profound and dramatic improvements we have seen while working with autistic children in these parts of the world, and it is proof that autism knows no borders. If autism knows no borders, then our assistance for families also knows no borders. Our limitations will be time zones and different languages for now, and those are two challenges that are not so difficult to overcome.”

One of the realizations of dealing with a global pandemic is that the internet and video telecommunications are valuable when it comes to supporting education. Parents who desire the safety and convenience of home-based study sessions are discovering that helpful avatars are just a click away.

 

Andrew Ciampi is an author based in the state of Washington. His areas of interest include the autism spectrum, emerging technologies, and the transportation/trucking sector.

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