#AutismPower - Five takeaways from a run with Varun Sawant by Vineet Saraiwala
Vineet Saraiwala, a visually impaired trekker, cyclist and marathoner, and lead of the inclusion drive for Big Bazaar, shares his experiences running with Varun Sawant, a young marathoner on the autism spectrum.
Varun and I participated in a Run for Autism event in Mumbai to raise awareness about Autism Spectrum Disorder and to discover each other's worlds. He would have held certain notions about running with someone with a visual disability. I, too had my own share of prejudices.
How it happened
I run with a tether, a sort of an elastic band, which gives me a feeling of independence and flexibility to the runner alongside me. Initially, I was sceptical as this is unchartered territory. Varun had to accept the tether, guide me during the entire stretch of the race, match the pace, and understand my world. Just 20 years old, Varun has completed several sub two-hour half marathons and is a budding chef. We were connected by a common friend Parul Kumtha, Founder, Forum for Autism, who suggested we run together.
We completed the 5-km stretch in Thakur Village, Kandivali in 35 minutes and look forward to repeating this in a half marathon soon. Emotions are unseen, it is not necessary that you always need to express your love and care. The warmth and compassion I felt after running with Varun was immense. He put his arm around me while we were taking photographs or while slowing down. He understood my constraints without any form of verbal communication and guided me throughout, repeating 'well done' repeating like a chant.
So, here are my five takeaways from the experience.
- Be Real - Varun had complete clarity on the race day and if he was angry about anything, he would l immediately voice his displeasure. He wanted to run fast but also enjoy the process of running. He wanted to have chikki in the middle of the race and he stopped and took it from volunteers. He wanted to run fast and I was playing catch up in the last stretch.
- No Judgement - Varun and I practised a short stretch before the race in the park where a fellow runner called us mad individuals. This is unfortunate but also the sad reality about how society views unconventional scenes. A small kid will be curious while an adult will be judgemental. There are human variations and people forget that what sets humans and robots apart are these subtle differences rather than the standardised output controlled by algorithms.
- Be Adaptable - It was difficult for both of us to adjust with each other's constraints but we were open to new learnings. We were already naked to this society in terms of our disability and the thrill to run with each other was building on. Varun learned to navigate with the tether while I ran without non- visual cues for the first time. The non-disabled world takes so much time in understanding my disability but Varun grasped this without me explaining anything to him. He treated me like an equal running buddy.
- Be Aggressive - Varun's pace is incredible and his coach Kaushik Panchal told me that if anyone wants to improve his pace he runs with Varun. Varun is probably be the fastest runner on the spectrum and his single-minded aggression with focus is something I wish to learn. He is extremely disciplined and when we were meeting for the first time, his mother Darshana told me to be there at sharp 6 Am, else Varun will be upset. I think respecting each other's time is a great habit to possess.
- Autism is not a puzzle - It is not to be solved or a monster to be conquered. Ideally, we don't need awareness or sensitivity on how to interact with persons with ASD but a common bonding of humanity and a mix of love, compassion and respect for each other equally. The Creator is not churning out humans like conveyor belts in fixed proportion and that is why precisely he is a creator and not a machine. We should respect a fellow human being and his differences.