Hari Srinivasan standing against a concrete railingFor any UC Berkeley undergraduate, even the most talented, applying and getting into graduate school is an arduous and anxiety-ridden endeavor. For underrepresented, marginalized students whose educational journey typically lacks the support systems enjoyed by more advantaged mainstream students, it’s an even greater challenge.

Now imagine that journey for someone who is not only a child of immigrants but whose regressive autism as a toddler meant loss of most developmental milestones, especially speech, and bounced him around special education classrooms where by the 7th grade he was still being taught to spell three-letter words, with no path to a high school diploma or college. 

And yet, this amazing someone — Hari Srinivasan — has recently been awarded a prestigious Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans and has been accepted into the neuroscience Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt University. He will be the first-ever minimally-speaking autistic to enter a Ph.D. program.

Hari’s remarkable journey to graduate school is, above all, an epic example of fortitude and an unyielding quest for knowledge. It also underscores the value and necessity of support systems that recognize talent and give promising yet disabled or otherwise marginalized students the ability and encouragement to achieve their highest potential. 

Hari’s disability is impossible to ignore and as such, has shut doors even before he had a chance to knock. His autism impacts his fine motor skills and speech (he prefers the label “minimally-speaking” since he can speak about a dozen words or phrases around very basic wants) as well as sensory dysregulation, body coordination, and body schema perception, all of which contribute to a high level of anxiety. Autism is a spectrum condition and there are many autistics in college today, but Hari notes that it’s extremely rare to find an autistic with his level of communication challenges in higher education. 

Being excluded, denied opportunities, and hearing “NO” can be a constant for autistics and others with disabilities. “There is this huge problem of low expectations that has seeped into every aspect of disability education and support,” he said. “Especially if you are perceived to be ‘more disabled.’” As he wrote in his blog, “For much of my schooling years, education was like the candy in the candy store with me staring longingly at it through the window.” 

A combination of resourceful parents who sought innovative educational solutions while still keeping him connected to his cultural roots, and alternative communication technology finally put Hari on the path toward mainstream higher education. A move to a charter school where he was high school valedictorian, along with winning multiple awards for his creative writing, and, then to community college, finally led to acceptance at Berkeley as a transfer student. 

This May, Hari graduates Phi Beta Kappa and Psi Chi from UC Berkeley majoring in psychology with a disability studies minor. He, along with his friend David Teplitz, are the first two nonspeaking/minimally speaking autistics to have been accepted into and graduate from UC Berkeley.

Among Hari’s many achievements, as a Berkeley Haas Scholar, he conducted independent research on the autistic experience of awe under the mentorship of Professor Dacher Keltner and since 2018 has been the lead student instructor for a semester-long DeCal class on autism with the support of Professor Stephen Hinshaw. He is the Frist Center for Autism & Innovation’s first-ever distinguished visiting fellow, serving in that role from July 2021 to June 2022.

This April, Hari was honored with the 2021-22 Psychology Departmental Citation Award given to the top undergraduate in the department based on all aspects of academic life. He will be giving a short speech using his text-speech app during the Psychology Department Commencement Ceremony on May 19th. 

Hari doesn’t minimize the work it has taken to get where he is today.

“At each step, I have never taken for granted that I would be guaranteed access to the next level of education.”

Hari SrinivasanPsychology Class of 2022

Nor does he shirk his role as a pathbreaker.

“All over the U.S. there are but a handful of autistics with communication challenges like mine in higher education,” Hari notes. “One of the reasons the journey has been so much more difficult for me is that I’ve had to write the roadmap as there are almost no role models to look to for advice.”

As the birthplace of the disability rights movement and the first campus to accommodate students with disabilities, UC Berkeley was the unique fertile ground essential to nurturing Hari’s potential. He acknowledged the flexibility of faculty, staff, and peers in accommodating and working with his needs, as well as the mutual respect and appreciation he experienced, as having the biggest impact. “A key factor for my success was that no one at UC Berkeley ever said “NO.”

Hari pointed to a  specific example where his fine motor challenges could have potentially excluded him from contributing to the Berkeley Disability Lab — a makerspace lab requiring hands-on participation. “Professor Karen Nakamura instantly created a brand new role for me that played to my strengths, putting me in charge of team propaganda.”

The social interaction challenges that many autistics such as Hari face exclude them from the informal networks that most non-disabled peers access. Hari credits the Office of Graduate Diversity’s Getting into Graduate School (GiGS) program in helping map the path toward his acceptance into Vanderbilt’s Ph.D. program. “It gave the process a shape, a sort of timeline,  all these little tidbits that you would not think of or find online,” he explained. “The best part was undoubtedly the mentorship through weekly meetings with my grad student mentor, Lindsey Burnside.”

 “Though it was a sense of duty that initially drew me to participate in GiGS as a mentor, it has been my absolute privilege to know Hari and be a small support in his journey to graduate school. I am positive he will accomplish wonderful things at Vanderbilt and beyond.”

Lindsey Burnside headshot
Lindsey Burnside Hari's GiGs mentor

Commenting on her work with Hari, Lindsey Burnside, who is a doctoral candidate in the department of psychology and Chancellor’s Fellow, expanded on the value of GiGs. “I feel that every academic has a responsibility to not only bring more marginalized voices into academia, but also to ensure that academia is a space where marginalized people may thrive. It can only improve our knowledge production and service to the public,” she said.  

She added, “Though it was a sense of duty that initially drew me to participate in GiGS as a mentor, it has been my absolute privilege to know Hari and be a small support in his journey to graduate school. I am positive he will accomplish wonderful things at Vanderbilt and beyond.”

Hari is an ardent disability advocate. “Today, autism is one of the fastest-growing neurodevelopmental disabilities. Autism in all its forms, has a voice and we want to make it heard,” he emphasized. 

He has written over 50 articles on disability as a senior staff journalist at the Daily Cal and was the first minimally-speaking president of the student organization, “Spectrum at Cal” last year. He is on the Council of Autistic Advisors for the Autism Society of America, the Community Advisory Board for the Brain Foundation, and is vice-chair on the Board of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. He was also selected to serve on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, which advises federal policy and priorities on autism. In 2020, his activism was highlighted in social media by Barack Obama. 

Hari is very clear about what drives his passion for higher education. “A college degree and above is what gets you a seat at the table, where you get to be part of the conversion about who gets access to spaces, funding, and resources. If we want to see change, belonging, acceptance, and other solutions for autistics, we need to see more autistics in higher ed. And we need to see all profiles of autistics, including the most marginalized autistics, for this change to be meaningful.”

But for Hari, just having a seat at the table is not enough. “I want to be able to redefine the table itself, whether it’s academically or in advocacy. A fair and inclusive world does not just have to be a myth. We need to work actively to make the possibility a reality. Everyone deserves the same opportunity of education, inclusion, and belonging.”