Aashna Shah is a junior in high school, Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen, an author of three books, a motivational speaker, and a passionate learning disability advocate.
Aashna shares her journey through her learning disability diagnosis, discusses her book series on destigmatizing learning disabilities, talks of the learning disability stigma in the Indian community, and much more!
Get to know Aashna and learn more about her awesome advocacy work in Florida!
Welcome to the LDA podcast, a series by The Learning Disabilities Association of America. Our podcast is dedicated to exploring topics of interest to educators, individuals with learning disabilities, parents and professionals to work towards our goal of creating a more equitable world. Hi, everyone. Welcome to the LDA Podcast. I'm here today with Aashna Shah. She's the 2022 Miss Florida's outstanding team, author, speaker and learning disability advocate. Aashna thank you so much for being here.
Aashna Shah 00:35
Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited to be on today's podcast. I'm a big fan of LDA. So thank you so much for having me.
Of course, we're so happy to have you. So could you start out by telling us just a little bit about yourself? What are some of your interests, your passions?
Aashna Shah 00:50
Of course. So, my name is Aashna, like you said, I'm Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen. I am in 11th grade at Palm Beach High School. I've been dancing since I was three years old. I'm technically trained in Indian dancing and Bollywood dancing. I love to bake. I was diagnosed with three learning disabilities. And I'm an author. And I think that's like a little rough start. But there you go. That's a little bit about me.
Absolutely. Well, it's such a long list too. So I think you did a good job of covering and we'll cover some more things in depth here. But could you tell us a little bit about your experience with learning disabilities?
Aashna Shah 01:31
Of course. So I was diagnosed in eighth grade. And I think the best way to define my experience of my learning disabilities would be like a roller coaster. It was really difficult for me in the beginning. And I think I've gone up, but there's obviously ups and downs with learning disabilities. But I've gone from thinking that my learning disability was the end of the world to now seeing it as a superpower. So it's kind of just been all over the place. But I realize the value and how it's a blessing in disguise now.
Could you tell us a little bit of that journey of going from the "oh my gosh, it's the end of the world" to sort of embracing it. How did you get there?
Aashna Shah 02:12
So when I was first diagnosed in eighth grade, I actually went through a 15 day period where I was in bed rest. Because after my diagnosis, I had such a bad anxiety attack, I had an anxiety migraine for like, 15 days long. I just sat in bed, I could not believe that this was real life. I grew up in an Indian household, where learning disabilities are a big taboo, we don't talk about them, you know, we are perceived by the Indian community, like every single child is perfect. We don't show our imperfections. So it was a really big shock. My first question when I was younger and my parents told me that I have dyslexia was is there a cure? What's the cure? Like, let's do it. And they were like, there is no cure, necessarily. Your brain is wired differently. So I had a hard time understanding grasping that. And so in that 15 day period, when I started cognitive behavioral therapy, they had actually told me to start journaling all my thoughts, all my feelings, everything that I think could be about dyslexia, everything that I have just been feeling. So that helped me a lot, I think.
Aashna Shah 03:21
And then as I went into my freshman year in high school my parents fought for my accommodations. My school wasn't going to give me accommodations because I was a straight A student my entire life until eighth grade. I got a bad grade in science, science is my favorite subject. I don't even know how I got a bad grade. And that's actually why I got diagnosed because of my background in science, because I was on an advanced placement science program. So when I went into freshman year my parents were my voice for me, they fought for my accommodations, and I'm so extremely thankful that they did, because that gave me a little bit more confidence going into my freshman year. I was able to use my accommodations and learn how to advocate for myself, and how to get myself extra time and all these other things that I didn't even know were possible. And so that helped me a lot to gain the confidence.
Aashna Shah 04:11
But I think it was really in tenth grade, when I realized that there's so many kids out there that were just like me, they struggled so much with their learning disability. They come from Indian households, and they don't even understand what a learning disability is. And their parents probably aren't fighting for their accommodations. And that's when I realized I want to be the voice that my parents were for me. And that's when I realized that I need to embrace my learning disabilities, I need to start helping others with their learning disabilities now that I've been able to use my accommodations and I had the privilege of getting accommodations. And that's when I started writing my first book "Dynamic Diya: Dyslexia is her Superpower."
Aashna Shah 04:54
I used my journals kind of as an outline when I was journaling when I first got diagnosed. I had written down so much in them. And I use that in my books, I use that information, the things that happened to me that I realized were because of my dyslexia. I put it into my book, I wrote a prologue to parents telling them symptoms, signs, ages they should get their kids tested. And when I was writing all this, in the back of my mind, I just thought, I used to go to the library so often when I was younger. If my parents were to have picked up this book, seen, oh, Dynamic Diya, there's a little Indian girl on the cover of this book just like me, Aashna would love this book. And they would have read it, they would have seen those signs. So I'm hoping that there's some parents out there, some kids that read the book, and they see, oh, maybe I have dyslexia. Or they can see, wow, dyslexia isn't bad, let's not discriminate against those with learning disabilities. So really just raising awareness. And so in 10th grade I published my first book, and now I have two more books, one about ADHD, and one about anxiety. And I'm also a motivational speaker now. So I go to schools and organizations talking about learning disabilities and explaining it to students, parents, adults, all over the place. So truly, it has been a full 180. I started off almost thinking that I wouldn't be successful in my future. And now I know that I can be successful. And I think that's really important to put out there for kids who have just been diagnosed.
Absolutely. It's amazing how you were able to take your own personal story of starting from this place that was really sort of pessimistic, really a lot of anxiety about it, and through helping others it sounds like you were able to come to terms with it, which is really amazing. So we touched on this a little bit, but how did you decide that learning disabilities was going to be the issue that you were passionate about?
Aashna Shah 06:50
You know, I think that because I had seen how much I was changing, and how much my accommodations helped me. And I worked, I have a nonprofit organization called Kindness in a Diverse Society. And so when I worked with these kids who have been abused, abandoned and neglected, they don't have the same privileges and resources that I do. I'm helping to get them their basic necessities. Who's helping to advocate for their learning disabilities? They're trying to get the bare minimum. Who's helping them with their learning disabilities, if they even have them, who's testing them? So I think that also helped me realize I'm so blessed that I was able to get accommodations, 1 in 50 schools actually give out accommodations correctly. And so I did my research, low bracket income areas, they actually either overdiagnose and isolate their kids with learning disabilities, or they're just completely ignored and they don't get very good accommodations. And so that's when I realized that I need to go straight to the source, I need to go to those kids, I need to go to the staff at these organizations and talk to them about learning disabilities, give them the resources, give them my books, they have so many signs and symptoms written in them that they can see in the kids they're working with. And I've also been doing a lot with legislation, making sure that we can increase the budgets for ESC assistance and ways that we can help these kids get the resources that they need, because it's a really big issue that we have. And I think just being able to see that firsthand has made me even more passionate about the topic.
Absolutely. It's a real gap that you found, so that's amazing.
Aashna Shah 08:40
So to talk a little bit more about Kindness in a Diverse Society, could you tell us a little bit about how you got how you decided to found that, and how you begin to include learning disabilities in the mission?
Aashna Shah 08:54
Absolutely. So in seventh grade, actually, between my sixth and seventh grade summer I had gone to India, and I had actually volunteered at an orphanage there. And I saw the kids in the orphanage that were my age, but in a completely different situation than I was. And so that really hit home with me. I always volunteered with my parents growing up, but I don't know. Something about that organization really sparked me. So when I came back to America, I knew I wanted to do everything I could to help those kids, you know, starting in America and working my way to India. And so that's when I decided, it's my two best friends, that we're going to open an organization called Kindness in a Diverse Society, it would be completely kids run, kids helping kids. We wanted to help the kids that were our age, but in completely different situations. And so since seventh grade we've been able to do drives, we're able to do fundraisers, we've been able to do, we actually have a podcast also. So we've been able to do so many things.
Aashna Shah 09:53
And it wasn't until eighth grade when I got diagnosed with a learning disability, and then in 9th grade and 10th grade when I really started getting passionate about it, and realized that the kids that I've been working with with my nonprofit organization are the ones that aren't getting the learning disabilities. Although I had to fight so hard for mine, no one's even fighting for theirs. And I think that's when I realized I need to combine these two, I need to combine my two passions, helping underprivileged children and learning disabilities. And so that's when I started donating my books to schools all across the state of Florida. That's when I started motivationally speaking at organizations like SEDNET, and organizations like Pace for Girls, because these organizations, they have very powerful people. At SEDNET I spoke at their conference with all of the ESC directors in Duval County, Clay County and all these counties across Florida. And I told them, we need to focus more on learning disabilities, I think it's a really big issue that we're not focusing on. And so being able to use the platform from Kindness in a Diverse Society, my nonprofit organization, and now as Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen has been incredible, it has made my voice and my reach so much bigger. With my title, Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen, I sent my books all across the state of Florida to our local titleholders. And they donated those books in local daycares, local schools, they read it to libraries. And that just raised so much awareness by itself. We actually called it the awareness project. And I'm so glad I was able to do that and spread the word because a lot of people don't know signs and symptoms, a lot of people don't know about these learning disabilities. So being able to combine Kindness in a Diverse Society with learning disabilities was a really big step that I knew we had to take. And I'm so glad that we did because we've had so much of a bigger reach.
Absolutely, that sounds like an amazing impact. And so to talk a little bit more about the books that you've published, could you go into detail a little bit about what each one has?
Aashna Shah 11:59
Yes, absolutely. So my first book that I published was Dynamic Diya, Dyslexia is her Superpower. And so this one, I actually like to think of myself, because it's my first book, I was, you know, really starting to accept my learning disabilities around this time. And I just feel connected to...I actually sent the illustrator, I used an illustrator in India. And I sent him a picture of my little sister and said, 'can you make the character look like my little sister?' So it's a little Indian girl on the front cover. And so Diya is having a hard time, she doesn't understand why her numbers are moving and why her notes on her page when she plays piano are running across the page and stuff like that. A lot of kids...I didn't even realize that wasn't normal my entire life. I've used my L's to figure out which my left and my right was, and I was like, I think everyone does that. But that's not true. So just these things that, you know, it's my normal, but it's not everyone's normal. These things that I saw that were happening to me, but they weren't happening to my best friend. So stuff like that is what I put into my first book. And then of course, I have the prologue in the beginning to the parents, telling them about what learning disability dyslexia is, and the signs and symptoms and age that they should get their child tested. And so that's my first book about dyslexia.
Aashna Shah 13:23
My second book is about ADHD. And it's almost the same talking about my personal experiences that other kids may be having. But at the end, I actually put in some techniques that I realized have helped me with my ADHD, like putting a timer on when I'm doing assignments, and then letting me have a little break, or just completely putting all of my distractions into one box and putting that at the other side of the room. And so stuff that I've realized since I had been diagnosed that have helped me throughout my years with my ADHD I wanted to add in, and it's a little ADHD superhero manual. And of course, there's the prologue in the beginning. And it talks to the parents about the same things and includes medication and whether it's the right choice to give your child medication, because ultimately, it is the parents decision because it's a hard decision, because you don't know because it's such a new thing.
Aashna Shah 14:21
And then the last one that I just recently wrote was 'Brave Brian, Anxiety Gave Him His Superpower.' And so I like the way that this one is worded. anxiety gave him a superpower. Because I think overcoming your anxiety makes you brave. I always felt brave when I overcame my anxiety, and so I kind of showed that in my book. There's situations as a kid that I would get really anxious, which wasn't normal for a kid to get anxious. Like, when my little sister was sleeping. I would always get really anxious because I thought she can't breathe, she's not breathing. So I'd always go and check her pulse to make sure she was still breathing. And that's weird for a 10 year old to be doing that. But it made me really anxious. And so, you know, I always felt really brave when I overcame my anxiety. So it's really all about that. And then at the end of that book as well, I put in some techniques to overcome anxiety, and stay strong. And there's some coloring pages in all my books for the kids that read it. And there's a little page where they can write what they think their superpowers are, and of course the prologues to all the parents. But those are my first three books, and I'm hoping for many more to come. I really want to cover every single learning disability out there. But I've had so much fun with these three so far.
That's amazing. That sounds like a really comprehensive guide, because it's so difficult sometimes when you're young, to explain a learning disability of what it entails and what this means for you. So I think that's a great way to break it down.
Aashna Shah 15:54
Absolutely. And whenever I was writing them, I would always think, because my little sister is 10 years younger than me, how would I explain this to my little sister, because she is so young. And I want these books to really be going to all the kids out there so that they can start off without having any stigma around a learning disability. I think stigmas are taught. So if we were able to break that at the beginning, I think that would be really great. So I always kind of thought about how can I explain this to a kid? How can I explain this to my little sister so that she can understand and be inclusive to those with learning disabilities?
Absolutely. So would you be able to tell us...I don't know if you can narrow it down to just one, but what's been your favorite experience while advocating for learning disability awareness?
Aashna Shah 16:41
Oh, my goodness, there's been so many great experiences, truly, for the past few years that I've been able to advocate. I have felt so many heartwarming things, and been able to feel like I've really been making a difference. But if I were to choose one, I think it would probably be the impact I've made in the Indian community. Like I said earlier, the Indian community is a very big taboo. Learning disabilities, they're not talked about in the Indian community, you show your child like they're perfect, you don't show imperfections. So when I was diagnosed with dyslexia, and ADHD, and anxiety, my dad had actually, he had said, 'let's just not tell anyone, we'll keep it on the low.' My mom was like, 'no, we need to be upfront about this, there's probably other kids out there, we need all the help we can get.' Right? So I'm glad that my mom did. And I'm glad that I've been able to be so open about my learning disabilities, because since I started advocating, I've actually gotten three or four kids in my very own Indian community diagnosed. And so I'm so glad that my influence and my books have been able to help those kids, because I know those Indian parents were probably having a very tough time. But I think as people are being more open, as I'm able to be so open about my learning disabilities, it helps them see that it's helpful to get accommodations in school. I think their parents are probably getting mad at them because they're getting a bad grade and science like I did. But with those accommodations, that can be fixed. Accommodations even out the playing field. Extra time has helped me so much, having a reader has helped me so much. And if those kids were able to get that, then I think they can be so successful. And so just being able to hit the Indian community hard, talk about my learning disabilities openly, and be able to get those three, I think four, kids diagnosed, that I knew personally, was just the cherry on top, I never thought that I could make a difference in the Indian community where learning disabilities were such a stigma growing up. So that's probably my favorite.
So this is a more general question. But what would you say to someone who thinks that they're too young to make a difference?
Aashna Shah 19:02
If I could talk to someone who thinks they're too young to make a difference, I would tell them I was only in seventh grade when I started my nonprofit organization. I was aiming to help the kids in India but I was starting in America. I never knew that I would be able to help kids globally, with an international book deal and a global dance competition. I never thought any of that was possible. But you know, you have to start small. Volunteerism has no age, start as a volunteer, you can grow to make your organization. I think just starting as a volunteer and seeing where passion lies, is really important. My best friend, she absolutely loves puppies. So she works at animal shelters all the time. And I know she's going to do something really big with that. I know she's going to make such a big difference for those animals. So just starting volunteering at different places and finding where your passion is and just growing with your passion as you grow up, I think that is how you know you're making a difference just by starting to volunteer. That's where you start.
That's great advice. So what message would you like everybody to know about learning disabilities? I know we talked a lot about stigma, is there anything that you really want people to take home?
Aashna Shah 20:19
I think something that people should take home is that we need to stop seeing learning disabilities as a disability, I think we need to start seeing them as a superpower, which is why I made all my characters in my books superheroes. Because a learning disability, like for example, dyslexia, which is what I have, if I am truly passionate about something, I can hone in on that passion and become so successful with it. And I think that's why I've been able to advocate and help so many kids with learning disabilities, because I'm so passionate about it. And I think that being able to use your learning disability to your advantage is so important, because that's how you create a superpower. That's why I start off when I talk with kids with 'what do you think your superpower is?' Because it's so important to put a positive connotation on to the word, or on to learning disabilities, whether it's dyslexia, or ADHD, or anxiety, because I think that's how we're going to start breaking stigmas, breaking barriers at a younger age, and as they grow up thinking in a positive light about learning disabilities instead of a negative light. And so that's something I really want people to take home is that learning disabilities are not a negative thing. They are a superpower. And there's something to be positive about and looked at positively because you can be so successful with learning disability.
So what are some of your plans for the future?
Aashna Shah 21:49
Oh my goodness, so many plans. As I was saying, I'm a junior in high school right now. So college applications are starting. I'm a dual enrolled and AP student, so I'm really trying to become a pediatric dental surgeon in my future. So that's why I'm doing everything I can right now in high school to make sure that I can achieve that goal. And you know, when I do become a pediatric dental surgeon, I hope to have a day or a week in a month that I can just do pro bono cases, and create smiles for kids who might not be able to afford their smiles. And so that's a really big goal of mine for the future. I also hope to finish my book series and cover every single learning disability out there and create the superheroes and the superpowers. But that's what I have in my future, hopefully, and what I'm looking forward to.
I'm sure you're going to excel and we'll definitely be looking for those books as well. Is there anything else that I didn't ask that you maybe wanted to share?
Aashna Shah 22:52
I think something that I would like to share with the audience is that you can do anything you put your mind to. And I think that's a really important thing, almost as an affirmation in your life. Because I never thought that I could publish a book, I never thought that I could be the first Indian American Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen, I never thought that I could be successful with a learning disability. But all these things I've put my mind to it and I've been able to achieve them. I am now Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen, the first Indian American one, and open about my learning disabilities. With my learning disabilities I am taking a very rigorous AP and dual enrolled course load right now. And I think when you think learning disabilities, you don't think AP and dual enrolled pediatric dental surgeon in their future, but because I'm putting my mind to it, I know I can achieve it. And I know that I am trying to be living proof of that for you. So if you're listening to this right now, just know Aashna is here showing you that you can do anything you put your mind to, and it's time for you to show someone else.
That's amazing. Well, Aashna, how can people learn a little bit more about you? Where can they find your books?
You can find my books on Amazon if you go to shahaashna.com There's also my books on there. So they are on Amazon, they're on my website, and then also my Instagram, which is @missaashnashah. And so that's where you can find me and keep up with my journey and buy my books.
We'll all be rooting for you, and Aashna thank you so much for the impact that you've made in Florida.
Aashna Shah 24:44
Of course, thank you so much for having me. I'm so glad I could speak with you about learning disabilities and I hope everyone out there has a great and fabulous day.
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