A milestone interview

To the media, Siri Chettipally is a developing story. To her family, she’s a miracle. To the world, an inspiration.

Siri was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. She has just crossed her very first academic milestone; she recently completed a course in Psychology from Santa Rosa Junior College, with an A grade. She also crossed another game-changing milestone this month. For the first time, Siri, who has non-verbal autism, spoke to the media directly – she gave her first-ever interview to India Currents. 

Siri is no stranger to media attention. She has been covered extensively,  telling stories about her challenges, triumphs, successful online jewelry-making business, and her love for exercise.

But until this interview,  her mother, Swathi, has been fielding all questions from journalists. For our interview, Siri took on my questions herself, spelling out her answers on a letter board. To communicate, Siri pointed to letters displayed on the board, one by one, to form full, coherent sentences that her communication coach, Kinsey Showers, jotted down in a notebook. The board essentially converts a fine motor skill (speaking or typing) into a gross motor skill (pointing with a finger). 

Siri understands three languages – English, Telugu, and Spanish. But a “brain-body disconnect”  prevents Siri from communicating the way others do, explained Showers. 

“My Name is Siri” 

In another first, Siri is spending time away from her Burlingame home, at Clearwater Ranch, Cloverdale, a community housing center that provides a safe space for adults with disabilities.  And she is loving it!

Siri’s parents,  Swathi and Uli Chettipally, moved from Hyderabad, India, to the United States 35 years ago. Siri has two younger brothers – Kiran and Vamsi. Over the last few decades, Swathi and Uli have worked tirelessly toward helping Siri reach her full potential and integrate into society. By being vocal about their lives and struggles, they have become beacons of hope not just for Siri, but for other parents of autistic children, who are in need of guidance, empathy, and encouragement. 

To celebrate Siri’s inspiring story and give hope to others facing similar challenges, the family has collaborated with Emmy award-winning filmmaker Sarah Moshman to create a short documentary titled, “My Name Is Siri”. It was screened at Cine Lounge, Fremont, in March, and will be available on the internet soon. The sequel is currently underway. 

YouTube video

Here are excerpts from our exclusive interview:

India Currents: Congratulations on your stellar grade. How did you feel when you heard the news?

Siri: I felt so proud of myself. I never thought I would be able to go to college. It has been the best experience.

This picture shows a letter board in the foreground, which Siri (seated right, in the background) with help from her communication coach, Kinsey Showers (seated left, in the background) uses to communicate. (Photo: Ashwini Gangal)
Siri (right) with her communication coach, Kinsey Showers, uses a letter board to communicate. (Photo: Ashwini Gangal)

IC: The coursework included writing a research paper. What was your topic and why did you choose it?

Siri: The topic was about non-speakers. I chose it because I am a non-speaker and I want to raise awareness for people like me. 

IC: What sparked your interest in Psychology?

Siri: Honestly, I chose it because it was online. I probably would have chosen something else if it was offered online. I am taking ethnic studies next.

IC: I remember reading about your interest in studying neuroscience. Do you still want to?

Siri: That is still the plan. I am still getting the hang of college. 

Swathi: One day while practicing the board with her, I just asked her whether she would like to go to college and get an education. When I put the board in front of her, she just started spelling ‘neuroscience’. I couldn’t believe it!

IC: How has working with your communication coach Kinsey been so far? 

Siri: I think working with Kinsey is so great because she trusts me all the time. I never feel like I have to prove anything. She believes me. I think we have a great partnership.

Kinsey: Me too. Siri is easy to work with. We can have conversations. She’s super accurate and fluent. It’s so smooth. Siri is a dream to work with.

Siri: Thank you for acknowledging my effort. I agree I am a dream to work with.

IC: Does Kinsey also help you communicate without the letter board? 

Siri: I think that would be great, but not attainable for me. I have a motor disability that would make speaking nearly impossible.

Kinsey: That would be the job of a speech therapist. It’s an entirely different realm. We have talked about working on purposeful reading – basically, me pointing to words in a book and her repeating what I say, word for word. Some people work on it to gain purposeful speech, others do it for motor practice. After learning this letter board, some spellers move onto keyboards or iPads, but that’s entirely up to her. If she wants to stay on the letter board, that’s fine. 

Uli: We don’t know that, Siri. There’s no limit.

Swathi: She is very determined. And she has expressed her desire to speak. We never say no. Did we ever think you would communicate, go to college or study psychology? Never limit yourself. Always shoot to the sky, very high.

IC: What are your first impressions of your new home at Cloverdale?

Siri: It’s wonderful. I love it. 

IC: The last few years have been quite challenging for everyone. What has the pandemic taught you?

Siri: It has taught me that life is short and I have to make the most of my time here. I hope I can help as many people as possible. My life has only just begun. 

IC: You’re such a confident person. What is the source of your confidence?

Siri: It has always come from my family always believing in me. 

Swathi: We have more faith in you, Siri, than we do in ourselves.

IC: Thank you for this interview, Siri.

Siri: I really loved being interviewed. It’s wonderful. I love it.   

“Coverage is supported by funding by Valley Health Foundation, through the County of Santa Clara Federal Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds under the American Rescue Plan Act.”

Ashwini Gangal is a fiction writer based in San Francisco, who has published stories and poems in literary magazines in the UK and Croatia.