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#AutismPower - Varun Sawant juggles multiple talents with great style

Just 20 years old, Varun Sawant wears his multiple hats of swimmer, marathoner and chef with ease.

Varun was just two-and-a-half years old when he started swimming lessons as his parents thought it would be a positive outlet given his autism diagnosis. He took to it quickly, even excelled at it but the continuous rains in Mumbai meant long breaks away from the pool.

"The swimming helped cope with his intense hyperactivity but the rains would disrupt this, says Darshana Chawan Sawant, Varun's mother. "At the time, marathons were becoming popular in Mumbai and we decided to enroll him in classes.

Darshana and her husband approached certified marathon coach Kaushik Panchal, who heads Runners Academy, to train Varun. Panchal had no background in working with people with disabilities but decided to give Varun a trial run provided he was accompanied by his father.

I had never met anyone with autism before that. I do group coaching and I was not sure he would be comfortable and whether others in the group may get disturbed, so I suggested four sessions to start with. I soon realized he was serious and committed. He would be there with his dad at 5.55 AM, on the dot for the 6 AM session and they would travel quite a distance. - Kaushik Panchal, Marathon Coach

Panchal's training unleashed a speed demon in Varun. Since he enrolled for the sessions three years ago, he has not stopped participating in marathons, running in Satara, Mumbai and Bhopal. At a recent inclusive run in Mumbai held to mark World Autism Day, he was way ahead of pack, finishing first in 35 minutes.

His partner at the run was seasoned marathoner Vineet Saraiwala, who works with Future Group Retail. Saraiwala rates him as among the fastest runners on the circuit, someone who also pushes him to do the best.

"Running with Varun was intense, remembers Saraiwala. "He is so focused, disciplined, calm, caring and open to new experiences. I could feel his warmth whenever he was nudging my shoulder and honestly we did not require words to communicate with each other.

Coach Panchal believes Varun has a great future ahead of him. 'His speed is great and he has immense patience, which is necessary for marathons because it can get tedious. Most youngsters tend to drop out for this reason. Varun has all three - endurance, speed and patience - which is rare.

It's not just Panchal who has experienced a change in attitude towards people with disabilities after meeting Varun. His teachers at the Patkar Varde College in Mumbai, where he is doing a B.Sc in Hospitality, echo the same.

Amol Rawool, who teaches Advanced Food Production at the college says, "Varun puts in 12-14 hours a day in college when needed and then goes running! He does all the tasks given with dedication and sincerity. He is the first student with autism to join our college and this has encouraged us to admit more children with the disorder. We now have seven students, and this is because Varun has changed the faculty's attitude.

"I found him sincere and hardworking, adds Chef Narendra Kolekar from Hotel ITC Maratha, under whom Varun interned for six months. "In my 28 years in the industry, this was the first time I worked with someone with autism and it was a great learning for me. He followed orders sincerely and never showed disinterest or boredom.

Where does this interest in cooking come from? Darshana has not a clue but the signs were there early. "When he was young, Varun could identify the masalas by the smell, she recalls. "He would smell the dishes and tell me what the ingredients were. I am not a good cook myself and this is something Varun started exploring on his own.

But the place where she most likes to see him is on the finishing line. "Running has changed him completely. When he crosses the finishing line and pushes his hands up in the air, I feel a glow inside because that's my son out there beating the odds, getting better, every time. I know he is growing as a person.


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