Swathi Vanguri, MD, and family
Einstein Untold: Unsung Heroes and Unknown Stories

She Supports Other Physician Moms Whose Kids Have Autism

By on 06/06/2022
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One in an ongoing series

Swathi Vanguri is a physician with faith in science and medicine, it goes without saying.  But when pediatric specialists told her that her then-3-year-old son had autism, Dr. Vanguri, an OBGYN at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery, refused to believe it.  

“I was devastated,” Dr. Vanguri says of the moment her son, Sahil Lakhani – now 10 – was diagnosed with autism. “I was convinced the doctors were wrong.”

Sure, he had speech delays. He didn’t always make eye contact and he engaged in repetitive behaviors. But children with autism were oversensitive to stimuli, weren’t they? Didn’t they recoil from loud noises and avoid physical contact?

That’s what she’d been taught in medical school. But her son wasn’t like that.    

Dr. Vanguri also attributes her “complete denial” to her native culture. She was born in India and moved to the United States when she was 2 years old.

“In the Indian community, people with special needs are shunned,” she says. “You don’t talk about anything like that. You only talk about accomplishments and how well people are doing.”

Everything changed for her the day her son attended an introductory session at the preschool where he was enrolled.

From Denial to Action

“I saw him sitting next to other kids his age and realized the difference,” Dr. Vanguri says. “They were sitting and listening and paying attention and he was kind of looking around, not focused at all, and couldn’t sit still. That’s when it hit me.”

And that’s when she went from outright denial to aggressive intervention, seeking and implementing every resource and strategy she could find to help her son. Eventually, she realized she also had to help herself.

“I needed support,” she says. “I was, at that time, feeling very lonely.”

Her friends and colleagues were talking about the “amazing things” their children were doing. “I didn’t know if my son was ever going to go to college, or live independently. And at that point, I didn’t even know if he was going to be able to talk. I was feeling very depressed and alone.”

One day, when her infant son, Sahil’s younger brother, was sick with the flu, Dr. Vanguri was “stuck upstairs in a room, breastfeeding all day to comfort this baby.” To pass the time, she was scrolling through a Facebook group for tens of thousands of physician moms all over the world.   

Support for Physician Moms

“Someone asked whether there was a sub group for physician moms who had special needs children,” Dr. Vanguri recalls. There wasn’t.

So she started one.

When the group began in January of 2015, there were 10 members. Now, there are 1,800 members, with new requests to join every day.

“We’ve grown exponentially,” Dr. Vanguri says, “Ironically, the most common diagnosis in the group is autism. You think you’re alone, but you’re not. It’s so prevalent.”

Dr. Vanguri said the group is limited to physicians because the nature of their jobs enables them to understand each other’s stresses, and because there’s little likelihood of anyone endorsing unscientific treatments or “anti-vax conspiracies.”

“I want to look at the data,” she says. “If you’re going to tell me the medication is good, I want to know what the studies show. This is a group of like-minded women.”

The group became so successful and demanding of her time that Dr. Vanguri handed over the administration to others. She continues to read and to post, occasionally.

She says she learned from the group that there’s no shame attached to having a child with special needs, and she’s helped her extended family embrace openness about Sahil’s situation. She helps her patients and their families, too.

Dr. Vanguri says she accommodates patients with special needs. If a patient is unable to sit still on the examining table, for instance, she is flexible.

She is also preparing a list of resources for families, particularly Indian families who may feel too constrained by stigma to ask for help. And she offers to put patients in touch with other families who have the same issues.

Dr. Vanguri’s son, Sahil, is in school now, and “he has a group of friends from school who he absolutely loves,” she says.

And Dr. Vanguri has gone from a mom in denial to an activist and advocate who’s helping families in her practice and in the online world around the globe.

“It’s nice to know there’s a group of us that can turn to each other,” she says.

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