Stanford undergraduate Radhika Shah has been named a 2022 L’Oréal Paris Woman of Worth in recognition of her work supporting the autistic community. The recognition awards her organization, Real Autism Difference (RAD), with $20,000, and puts her in the running for another $25,000, along with highlighting the impact of her work. 

Shah started RAD, which supports autistic kids living in Southern Nevada, at age 16. The organization emerged from her family’s experiences trying to get the support they needed for Shah’s brother, Amar, who is autistic.  

Amar’s story is unusual. It’s rare that autism results from another illness, but Amar developed severe autism at age 5 after a fever. This development meant that Amar lost his ability to talk, among other new challenges, and threw the Shah family into a complex process of navigating educational and therapeutic resources available to them.  

“There’s a ton of resources for kids with autism who are high functioning … but then people with severe autism have just completely fallen through the cracks.”

Radhika Shah

As the Shahs soon found out, the resources Amar needed were all but non-existent in their part of Nevada. Those resources that did exist often didn’t meet their son’s needs.  

“There’s a ton of resources for kids with autism who are high functioning, and those resources are available in Southern Nevada, but then people with severe autism have just completely fallen through the cracks,” Shah said in an interview. 

Shah noticed this as early as middle school, when she volunteered in her brother’s classroom, describing how “crazy” it seemed to her that “literally single moms would have to leave work early or couldn’t have a full-time job because the school couldn’t take care of their kid.”

A RAD-ical approach

These experiences were the genesis for RAD, which Shah launched on her 16th birthday. Today, Real Autism Difference serves the Southern Nevada community with after-school, weekend, and summer programming, as well as an online information and resource hub. The organization’s 4:1 participant-to-caretaker ratio means that it can serve children like Amar, who need more support and who often struggle to find any kind of programming at all in the area.  

In the words of Shah’s friend and RAD board member Mamta Odhrani, “It’s such personal care. It’s not impacting thousands of families but the 50, 60 families that we do impact — it’s life-changing. It’s profound.” 

The L’Oréal Women of Worth awards were established by the French cosmetics company to recognize women leading philanthropic work.  The L’Oréal Award given to Shah is the latest of a series of honors paid to her work. Along with recognition from former president George H.W. Bush’s foundation, Points of Light, Radhika Shah was invited to speak at a TedX talk in 2018.

YouTube video

In the talk, she spoke about what is clearly still a central part of her life and purpose: her friendship with her brother. “My brother is my best friend, and has always been my best friend,” she said, describing the ways she feels supported and loved by Amar in the time they spend together. That talk, she says, was a turning point for her, marking the beginning of her realization that speaking about Amar and his autism was a way of creating positive change.  

It seems that in naming her a Woman of Worth, L’Oréal has recognized what Radhika’s family and community have known for a long time: as Ohdrani says, Radhika is “a force to be reckoned with — and I say that in the most loving way. There’s no problem that’s too big for her.” 

Anyone interested in supporting the work of Radhika Shah and RAD can vote for them to receive an additional $25,000 donation on the L’Oréal Paris website. The competition is open through the end of November.