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View from US: Tomorrow never stops exploring

April 28, 2012

Do you think Shahrukh Khan is autistic? Does he give out vibes that send red flags up signalling that something is wrong with this man? Why else is he singled out by the US immigration when he flies in from India? Perhaps the security hounds, trained to catch suspicious characters entering America, smell fear each time they set eyes on the Bollywood superstar. Never mind if he lands in his personal jet! This month when he swooshed into a little known airport in New Haven as an invitee of Yale, the snotty Ivy League university, Khan was detained for full two hours. Yale apologised. An inflamed India didn’t accept the apology because three years ago, Khan was detained in the same circumstances. He had to be bailed out by the Indian consulate in New York. And guess what? He was in America to promote the launch of his new film My Name is Khan (and I am not a terrorist!)

So, to repeat my question, is Khan autistic in real life, like the part he plays of Rizwan Khan in the above movie? Many of us, including myself, did not know what autism was until I watched the film. Becoming an instant bestseller, the gut-wrenching classic caught our imagination and conscience about people one labelled ‘weird, ‘crazy,’ ‘loony,’ or ‘zany.’ Rizwan Khan is shown as a loner, a genius who is misunderstood by his peers. He is a social misfit but amazes his community with his uncommon intellectual powers. When he lands in America, the story becomes a page-turner. It transports us in a span of two hours through the arc of Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism that confronts Rizwan.

None other than Shahrukh Khan could have portrayed the face of autism so brilliantly. This added truth to the famous phrase, now a cliché, of the communication guru Marshal McLuhan “The medium is the message,” which caught fire in his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McLuhan said that a medium itself, not the content it carries, should be the focus of study, stressing that the medium influenced society.

Going by McLuhan’s logic, blue, the colour of autism, made a powerful statement around the world when thousands of buildings in all the continents were lit up in electric blue on April 2, for World Autism Awareness Day. Recently, an enduring symbol of America, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York lit up its majestic hall with life-sized windows in blue at a gala event honouring four, one of them a Pakistani-American investment specialist, whose outstanding philanthropic contributions have helped towards raising autism awareness. Sprinkled around the hall were antiquities from Egypt dating centuries back. They were all bathed in blue. Around them were tables set with giant flower bouquets and tea candles.

What drew the media and the top corporations like JP Morgan Chase and Cantor Fitzgerald to the event at the Metropolitan Museum was the active support of major league baseball teams in America. While we live and breathe cricket, Americans love baseball. Thomas Werner, chairman of Boston Red Sox, a hundred-year-old professional baseball team that began its debut at Boston’s famed Fenway Park in 1912 got involved in helping spread autism awareness when he came across a 12-year-old daughter of a colleague who appeared disoriented. “But I still remember her waving to me as I left,” said Werner. From that day he vowed to help find a cure for the illness.

Titled ‘2012 Lead Off for a Cure’ millions were raised during the ‘silent auction’ to benefit ‘Autism Speaks’ and the Gillen Brewer (Autism) School during dinner.

Seated at our dinner table were parents of a teenager diagnosed with autism since he was 19 months old. His grandparents too were at the table. “Just to hear Bobby say ‘I love you Nana’ swells my heart,” said the grandmother, with tears in her eyes. Bobby’s parents have had to fight many battles — with the school authorities and the community to respect and recognise autism as a condition that deserves utmost attention. “We had to get intervention for him early and are now confident that he will be able to function better — he can go to college, get married and hold down a job,” said Donna, the boy’s mother.

So what did you notice in your son that first made you aware that something was wrong with him as an infant? I ask the couple. “He would not focus on anything for long and had no eye contact with us,” answers the father who is a musician by profession. “We still worry for him...we are not going to be around forever and since he has no siblings who could care for him later in life, we have seriously considered adopting a baby from India or even China,” says the mother. “That will further complicate your lives,” interjects the mother addressing her daughter.

Today, one in 88 children in the US is on the autism spectrum — a 1,000 per cent increase over the last 40 years. You may wonder what causes the disorder. Autism has a large spectrum — those with Asperger’s have an exceptionally high IQ but are social misfits; at the other end of the spectrum are those with low IQ who require intense behavioural and occupational therapy. Autism is caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences.

America will one day find a cure for this disorder as tomorrow never stops exploring.