Michelle Pham is sprawled across her bedroom floor on this blazing Bay Area evening, her face puckering in concentration as she meticulously sketches out shapes, faces, and characters to a quiet 80’s rock drumbeat. A quick glance at her desk reveals folders of sheet music, original hand-penned lyrics, vibrant brush pens, and elegantly drawn caricatures next to what she jokingly calls her number one essential: her phone! “I NEED my phone. Everything from my school assignments, PRAGNYA involvement, friendly communication, relaxation… all of it, it's all on there!” she declares laughing.
When asked about movies and songs, Michelle quickly picks Horton Hears a Who as her favorite film for its rustic hilarity after admitting that she secretly loves chick-flicks. As the conversation turns to music, however, Michelle groans dramatically as she debates the merit of her favorite pop songs versus the timelessness of her staple classic 80’s rock bands, finally deciding on a list of artists, bands, and songs: “AC/DC and Queen are forever. Candy Star is the best confidence-boosting song of all time and is my go-to for impromptu jam sessions. And I lovelovelove Taylor Swift and Disney.” Apart from just being a music lover, Michelle sang alto in her school choir, can play several instruments including the flute, and writes her own songs. “Music is my happy place. It’s how I let go, how I pump myself up, how I find happiness,” she says. Her “Guess the Instrument” segment on PRAGNYA’s virtual socials is a constant hit and never fails to crack us up… and stump us!!
Michelle, a PRAGNYA ALLY GRANDMASTER, openly speaks about her journey in advocacy and her desire to learn and support her neurodiverse peers. Having witnessed the divide between the neurodiverse and neurotypical community, the now-graduating high school senior was introduced to PRAGNYA by a friend over two and a half years ago and joined to develop inclusivity and spread acceptance. Michelle describes her motivation to start a PRAGNYA Club at Milpitas High School as a need to create a safe space for her neurodiverse peers to be unapologetically themselves without fear of judgment or exclusion. The rising college freshman smiles as she recounts numerous favorite memories with her PRAGNYA family, from boisterous soccer games with her friends to ice-cream filled relay races on hot summer days, struggling to pick just one moment. Michelle hopes to carry on her allyship and advocacy throughout the rest of her life and states Kavita Sreedhar, co-founder of PRAGNYA, as her biggest inspiration for this.
Ms. Sreedhar provides more insight into Michelle’s passion, with stories of her selfless initiative, from collecting lunch money for PRAGNYA walking classroom to classroom, to raising funds by being pied in the face, to being an anchor ally organizer of PRAGNYA’s Step Up event for Autism Acceptance that happens every April. “Michelle also initiated and came up with the idea of something called Ally bonding,” Ms. Sreedhar recalls, “an initiative which brings together allies to foster lifelong friendships. She was also the first ever Ally to pipe up and proudly announce that she has neurodiverse friends that she would hang-out with, lifelong. One poignant moment I remember was meeting Michelle for the first time and how she cried when I shared statistics on how developmentally disabled women are at highest risk of being victims of sexual abuse. It was then that I realized how empathetic she was and how affected she was by what I had shared with her“ Michelle won State and Congressional Recognition for all her incredible contributions as an Ally, as well as recognition from the Milpitas Unified School District school board for incredible work she has spearheaded with her work at the PRAGNYA Club at Milpitas High School including the Resolution to declare April as Autism Acceptance Month in the district. Speaking emotionally of Michelle, Ms Sreedhar shared, “Allies like Michelle give me hope and faith that the world will be a safer, kinder and more compassionate place for neurodiverse children like my daughter ...”. In the future, Michelle hopes to be a Special-Ed teacher and continue her journey as an Ally!!