Empowering A Special Child: One Family’s Journey of Transformation

Empowering A Special Child: One Family’s
Journey of Transformation

BETHLEHEM, PA—Raising a child with special needs can be a rollercoaster of emotion for parents, according to First In Math India CEO, Monica Patel. Her son, Shonak, was diagnosed with high-functioning Autism nearly 20 years ago.

Shonak Patel and his mother, Monica.
First In Math India CEO, Monica Patel, and her son, Shonak.

“Unfortunately, at that time in India and overall, there was a lack of understanding about special-needs children,” explains Patel. School was soon a social, emotional and academic struggle. She and her husband, Pulkesh, decided their son needed a more inclusive social structure along with better education options—and made a bold move all the way to the United States, settling in Bethlehem, PA.

At his new school, Shonak discovered a love for mathematics—and flourished. He had found his niche. In sixth grade, his math teacher encouraged him to participate in the First In Math Online program, and he eventually bested 600,000 students to become the #1 player in the nation, all grades, in 2006.

“For the first time, hundreds of his middle school peers stood up to applaud him and in that moment he went from being invisible to becoming the pride of his school and the local community,” says Patel, who, more than 10 years later, is still visibly moved.

The experience with First In Math was such a powerful one, she eventually introduced the program to India, becoming CEO of First in Math India Pvt. Ltd., in 2014. “When I share Shonak’s success story with people, I also make sure that they understand First In Math is for ALL students—average, gifted, struggling, urban or rural,” says Patel. “A program such as this has the power to work for all our children and it would be a shame to see it get boxed-in to one category.”

While she has been preaching the gospel of First In Math for years, only recently has Patel been willing to share her family’s private journey. “My personal experience is a small part of this, but if I can help any family I am willing to talk about it.” After moving to the U.S., Patel obtained a Masters degree in Special Education from Lehigh University, and says that fully embracing and accepting her son’s autism came only after her own education and research. “It is hard to admit now, but no challenge was greater for us than my initial years spent in complete denial about his Autism.”

Now 24, Shonak is acknowledged as a top mathematician, and is ready to graduate from Carnegie Mellon University. He was recently featured in a PARENTS WORLD cover story in India. “It was making a connection, in his case with math, that motivated him in every aspect of life,” says Patel, who urges parents to help their child identify the interests he or she chooses. “Find the best tools to hone their skills until excellence becomes a way of life, and autism is carried with pride.”


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