Rishi Snacks: Creating Space For The Disabled One Snack At A Time

Photo Courtesy of Rishi Snacks

Creating opportunities for disabled individuals to secure employment, education, or living in their community of choice, can be difficult due to systemic barriers and environments created without universal design principles in mind. This paired with stigmas against disabled and neurodivergent individuals across the South Asian diaspora can leave South Asian caregivers, of family members with disabilities, with little hope for the futures of their loved ones.

[Read More: How Model Minority Myths Fails Neurodivergent South Asians]

Vijay and Manisha are based in Miami, Florida, and they have two boys, Savant and Rishi. Savant graduated from Wake Forest in 2023 and now works at Accenture in Charlotte, North Carolina. Rishi has autism and is currently in an adult program at Great Heights Academy.  Manisha and Vijay recently launched Rishi Snacks to provide jobs and opportunities for Rishi and the special needs community.  Rishi Snacks comes in five flavors: the original is Rishi’s grandmother’s recipe that everyone has always loved and has now been passed down to Rishi. Rishi and friends are trained to make the snack as well as go out into the community to sell. Vijay and Manisha’s goal is for Rishi and his friends to be part of the community and not be at home, once school is phased out.

When did you first realize that Rishi might have autism or that there might be something bigger going on? What did the emotional processing look like behind that?

Manisha: Initially we realized that the language wasn’t there; the eye contact wasn’t there. There were also delays in crawling, walking, and other developmental milestones. Because we already had an older son, we realized the differences in development. Rishi is 21 now but, back in the day, there wasn’t much awareness around development as there is now. The doctor said physically he was fine, just some delays in walking and speech. The doctor recommended that we undergo an evaluation which determined that Rishi needed occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy. At a year and a half, Rishi was receiving full-time PT, OT, and speech therapy. 

Vijay: In our case, crawling was a little bit different; babbling, or saying words practically, was different. So you know, Manisha looked right away into a nearby therapy center. Fortunately, they were really good therapists that we still know till today and our friends now. They have really helped with different things, like sensory needs, etc. There was no formal diagnosis until Rishi was five to six years old. We were already receiving therapy services for years without insurance covering anything. It was truly whatever Rishi needed. Once Manisha and I began visiting schools, people began asking what Rishi’s diagnosis was. We had no idea that we had to take this other step, and we were learning every day how to approach school placements, doctors, and therapies. We were told to see a psychologist to receive a diagnosis, but the diagnosis was not right at the beginning. 

Manisha: In 2002, the information around autism and development changed every six months. Answers around when you fell on the autism spectrum, and where, were still being discovered. When Rishi was a toddler, he was continuously misdiagnosed with developmental delays and speech delays until he was five to six years old. When we finally received a diagnosis by a psychologist, who confirmed that Rishi had autism and was on the spectrum, Vijay and I were already taking Rishi to therapies, activities in the community, and we were working with him ourselves. 

When did the idea for Rishi Snacks come to you? How did you envision it and then brought that vision to life?

Vijay: Manisha and I have always looked to Rishi’s future and thought about the day he becomes a young adult and turns 18. What is it going to look like for him? Rishi will not be in school forever and we don’t want him to be at home forever either. Over the past several years, we were looking into different ideas and things that Rishi can do; what he would like in a long-term sort of way. We visited a few businesses and things like that, and we also realized that everyone loves Mom’s chevda. 

Manisha: Rishi snacks was an idea we thought over the pandemic; we tried it a few times and realized it was something that we wanted to pursue. Rishi and the group of young adults with special needs or intellectual or developmental disabilities that are nearby are high-functioning. However, they need to be in a controlled environment: where there is a 4:1 ratio of supervisors or caregivers to adults with disabilities. So when Rishi Snacks began over COVID, we felt we might be onto something because we felt that mixing the ingredients for chevda and packaging and sealing bags were something that Rishi and his friends could do very well. We’ve managed to run the business for over a year and we even have our group go into community settings to offer samples to the community in places like malls, parks, etc. We are about to reach our one year anniversary and so far everything is good. Everyone loves the snack! Rishi and his friends are doing most of the work and they are happy. 


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Chef Vicky Colas (@thechefvicky)

How did the community respond to Rishi having autism and your mission to employ adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities at Rishi Snacks?

Vijay: Looking back, I think you go through different phases. Honestly, I don’t even think I knew what autism was. We learned so much on our own, by reading books and things like that. We don’t see Rishi as different or distinct. Rishi is one of the most loving individuals you would meet. He’s gone through different challenges obviously, in his life so far, and it’ll probably continue to evolve. However, society needs to know that individuals like Rishi can contribute in a meaningful way, even if it’s supervised partly, but they can do things. And that’s, you know, their special gift. 

Manisha: I think when Rishi was younger, we didn’t always take him everywhere. We would get so many questions about where he’s going to school, etc. There was a period we pulled away from the South Asian community and surrounded ourselves with Rishi’s special education community and his friends. We didn’t want to pull away from thencommunity but I think it just happened that way. We of course got the questions and it was difficult for Vijay and I to answer those questions and share that Rishi had Autism.

‘As Rishi got older, we established with the community: ‘This is our life, and this is the way it is. He’s autistic and if you want to be a part of our life, then be a part of it, otherwise if you’re going to criticize us, then bye!’

How have you approached normalizing autism, neurodivergence, and other disabilities in the South Asian diaspora?

Manisha: We weren’t focused on the South Asian community in the context of autism and Rishi’s identity as an autistic individual. We were just busy with Rishi and the special needs community. We’ve been involved for many years and met a couple of people who are Asian and have family members with special needs. We will meet people who share with us that they have an autistic son or their daughter was just diagnosed. It’s still very hush-hush and they don’t want to talk about it, but I am always letting people know if you need help or have questions, please reach out. We haven’t really created an Asian or South Asian community that are addressing the needs of individuals with disabilities or neurodivergent individuals. We’ve just been taking care of Rishi and focused on Rishi Snacks. We want South Asian caregivers and caregivers or parents of individuals with autism and other disabilities to feel supported, so let us know what we can do to help.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Rishi Snacks (@rishi_snacks)

What have been some of the biggest challenges and the biggest wins in creating Rishi Snacks?

Vijay: We didn’t know what the snack business entailed or where to even start. We did know that we wanted to find something that Rishi and his friends could do, while being happy and having success. We were focused on this and we knew we needed to do this. As Manisha mentioned, it took over a year to do this and we had help from a small group of people. Basically, it was Manisha’s mom’s chevda recipe, Manisha, and Chef Ricky, are the ones who brought this idea to fruition. The wins are not monetarily driven. This is a cause and a passion that we have. We want Rishi and his friends to succeed. If you saw them in the kitchen with Manisha and the rest of the gang when they come in, they are amazing. They’ve gotten so good at the process as a whole, they’re not bored, and they’re so happy. Of course, they have their good days and bad days as we all do, but that is addressed as needed. It’s the smiles on their faces for me that are just, amazing. 

What do you wish you would’ve known when Rishi first got diagnosed with autism?

Manisha: I would’ve liked a straight answer. It was either ‘oh, no he just has delays’ or something else. There was no guidance at all from anybody or any of the specialists we went to. It was Vijay and I following our instinct saying, ‘Okay, this is what we need and this is what we need to do.’ Honestly, we experienced the most progress and support from the therapists we regularly visited. We took things one day at a time.

We wish that we could’ve received proper guidance with Rishi from professionals like doctors and psychologists. Once, we went to a very popular neurologist when Rishi was five or six years old, and was already diagnosed with autism. They noted that Rishi was alert and recommended he should go to a school that can meet all his needs and support him. When we asked what the neurologist’s recommendation was for a school to go to, he told us he didn’t know. For many years, our struggles were finding the right programs so that Rishi could continue to be successful. We were all over the place with Rishi, taking him to piano lessons or horseback riding, but that was all because we were searching and finding resources competely on our own.

What are your biggest pieces of advice for South Asian mothers and caregivers of family members with disabilities?

Vijay: Making sure you have a good therapist: How do you know a therapist is good? You see if there’s improvements, or if you have an instinct about that therapist. Rishi’s therapists saw he couldn’t tie his shoelaces for example, and after a month, two months, or even three, he would learn. We would ask ourselves if Rishi was improving and growing. Rishi has always made improvements, slowly and little by little at a time. Like Manisha said, he goes for horseback riding, skiing, etc. We actually just came back from a ski trip, and Manisha and I were reminiscing that when Rishi was young, his ski teacher would use M&Ms to help him make turns left to left and right to left. With horseback riding, Rishi’s teacher is very good but she speaks Spanish. She teaches Rishi, in her not-so-fluent English, that the yellow rein is left and the blue rein is right so he knows which reins to pull on. It’s not traditional but it works, and she cares about Rishi very much.

A lot of times as a parent of an autistic child, it’s just instinct, finding a good therapist and surrounding yourself with what you feel is the right fit for your child. Fortunately, we were lucky enough to have met a couple of amazing individuals that really helped us help Rishi. They’re all therapists [in a way].

What is your message to the South Asian diaspora in terms of accepting and embracing autism?

Manisha: Talk about it and don’t ignore what’s going on with your child. Find your community, get a therapist, and the good people around you to give you the support you’re going to need for your child.

The more you ignore what is going on with your child and think he or she is going to be fine, the less you’re helping them. You’re missing out on giving your child the support system they need and ultimately it’s the child who suffers.

You might think it’s going to be fine or you don’t want to deal with people, or let people know, about your child’s issues because it’s hard. It is very hard, to be honest, to talk about this topic and to navigate how to support your child in this context, but it’s for the best when you start securing support and a community you can lean on.

[Read Related: Defining Disability in South Asian Communities]

If you’re a parent of a neurodivergent, autistic, or disabled child, please find support in the resources below and check out the great work Rishi Snacks is doing in their community:

Avatar photo
By Asha Rao

Dr. Asha Rao is an Early Intervention Occupational Therapist (OT) practicing in the northern suburbs of IL. She completed her … Read more ›