For many years, Plant High School senior Aarushi Pratap’s art was something that impressed her parents and those who knew her. But over the last few months, her audience has expanded with a whirlwind of events in which her talent has gained notice.
Pratap was one of nine athletes from across the country whose artwork was selected to comprise the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games logo.
From the time Pratap was a toddler, her parents knew they were raising an artist.
Born in Gurgaon, India, Pratap and her family moved to the United Kingdom and back to India when she was three. It was then that she was diagnosed with autism.
In school, she sometimes struggled using words or became frustrated with work. But Lakshmi Singh, Pratap’s mother, would notice her daughter sitting on the floor for hours on end, making 50 or more drawings at a time. The drawings would later form a comic series chronicling the life of a character named “Piggy,” who would fall in love or face rejection.
“We saw a lot of adult themes at a young age of 7,” Singh said.
Pratap said creating art made her feel good.
“I got inspired by other artists and YouTube,” she said.
She continued her drawings, dabbling with watercolors and acrylic paints, designing dresses and elaborate costumes and running a website that showcased her creations. When she was in 7th grade, a high school fashion show selected her designs and she worked with a seamstress to bring a sketch into reality.
“That was such an ‘aha’ moment for her because she said ‘I can do this,’” Singh said.
When Pratap was 13, the family moved to the U.S., first to California and then Texas before settling in Tampa. She would voraciously watch YouTube videos and taught herself how to sew, creating her own dresses. For her 14th birthday, Pratap’s father bought her a sewing machine. Her mother had never used one and they wondered about whether she’d be able to use the gift, but figured their daughter would find a way. Within weeks, she was creating collared shirts and professional looking dresses.
“I felt sad or really missing (home) and my old friends," Pratap said. "And I came (here) I got used to my new friends. I felt good about it.”
One of the biggest sources of new friends, her mother said, has been through Special Olympics and participating in neurodiverse athletic teams at Plant High School. Last year, she created a bespoke purple and black dress for a Special Olympics benefit that was auctioned off for $2,000.
Pratap is involved with the cheering, swimming and stand-up paddle teams, and her mother said her involvement with Special Olympics and athletics has expanded her daughter’s world.
“I think that was such a refreshing thing, even for us as parents to watch that happening,” she said. “Right now, she’s got so many friends. It’s incredible.”
Plant High School Special Education teacher and cheering coach Mary Radigan said she has enjoyed watching Pratap blossom.
“I knew immediately when I met her we had one gifted young lady,” she said. “Her energy, her politeness, her spirit is so overwhelming. You just immediately like her.”
Pratap hopes to continue designing and creating dresses after she graduates from high school. Radigan said there are often challenges for people with special needs to navigate standard curricula of traditional design schools, but a little creativity on the part of schools could open doors for creative students.
At Plant, Pratap started her own seamstress business, charging $3 to sew or repair items that many faculty and staff use, she said.
Singh said her daughter has opened her eyes to many things.
“I mean, we knew we beheld this amazing, amazing personality right from the time she was little," Singh said.
“She was artistic, she was drawing, she’s sewing clothes, it’s incredible, but above all of that, you know, what really strikes me about her is that she’s very hardworking, and she’s got a great work ethic, this attitude of inclusion, she wants everyone to be part of her life.”
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