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Trevor Noah, Qatari Ambassador Headline Autism Awareness Gala

By Anna Gawel

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 59 children in the United States are born on the autism spectrum, a figure that has jumped from one in 150 births in 2000. Newer studies show that the figure may be as high as one in 40 children.

But autism is a lifelong disorder that goes well beyond childhood. The unemployment rate for adults with autism and other developmental disabilities is close to 70 percent, according to the Autism Society, which hosted its Autism Awareness Gala at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on Nov. 13.

Founded in 1965, the Autism Society today has over 120,000 members connected through a network of close to 90 affiliates nationwide. These local affiliates work to raise awareness about the disorder, support autism research and advocate for programs and services for people with autism, their families and professionals in the field.

The gala was co-sponsored by the Embassy of Qatar and featured two world-renowned artists living with autism, as well as two senators who have pushed for autism resources on Capitol Hill. The evening ended on a lighthearted note with comedian Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, who talked about using laughter to overcome obstacles in his own life.

Autism Society
Chairman of the Autism Society Board of Directors Joseph P. Joyce, artist Stephen Wiltshire and Qatari Ambassador Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad Al-Thani attend the Autism Awareness Gala. Photo: Embassy of Qatar

The Autism Society of America is the oldest and largest community-based autism organization in the country, serving over 650,000 people each year. “Our mission is simple: We help each person impacted by autism each day to maximize  their quality of life,” said Joseph P. Joyce, chairman of the Autism Society Board of Directors.

“From helping a family develop a pre-school program plan, to helping older parents find housing for their older son or daughter with autism, the Autism Society is there. From witnessing the smile of a young adult getting his first paycheck, doing meaningful work commensurate his skills, to helping a young woman learn how to understand and adhere to a budget so that she can live as independently as possible, the Autism Society is there,” Joyce, an executive vice president of Keystone Insurers Group, told the hundreds of guests in attendance.

Resources are key to achieving these dreams — but they don’t come cheaply. The Autism Society notes that it costs more than $8,600 extra per year to educate a student with autism, as opposed to the average cost of about $12,000 per student. The U.S. cost of autism over the lifespan is about $2.4 million for a person with an intellectual disability, or $1.4 million for a person without intellectual disability. In fact, autism services cost American citizens about $236 to $262 billion annually.

Autism Society Gala
Comedian Trevor Noah talks to CNN’s Michelle Kosinski. Photo: Embassy of Qatar

Congress has made headway on the issue with the Autism CARES Act (or Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Research, Education, and Support Act), which secured $1.3 billion in federal funding for autism research and education from 2015 to 2019.

Sen. Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.), one of two congressional honorees at the gala, was instrumental in passing the first version of the Autism Act in 2006.

“I was actively engaged in that effort because I believed it was an important step toward addressing the needs and finding the solutions and hopefully improve the lives of children and families affected by autism,” Enzi said. “I’ve partnered twice with Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) to extend the 2006 law so that the good work we are doing can continue. It’s helped us to learn more about autism spectrum disorders and its causes and symptoms, as well as to improve education, early detection, intervention and awareness.

“But there is still a lot to do,” Enzi added, noting that the prevalence of autism continues to soar.

Enzi said that he and his colleagues are currently working on another re-authorization because the Autism CARES Act expires next year.

Autism Society Gala
Christopher Duffley, a 17-year-old musician, speaker and podcaster who is both blind and autistic, performs for the crowd. Photo: Embassy of Qatar

“Many of you may have never heard of that before, because it passed unanimously. In Washington, if there’s not a fight, it doesn’t get reported. Hopefully we won’t hear a report on the autism bill either.”

The evening’s other congressional honoree, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.), agreed that when members of Congress “work together and you get something done fast and unanimously, it goes a little unnoticed … but it happens more than I think we realize.”

Still, Casey, a longtime advocate for autism funding, cautioned that “we have more to do by way of legislation.”

To that end, he recently sponsored legislation that provides businesses with a tax credit when they hire a person with a disability. Casey also cited the need for increased Medicaid funding and support for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to ensure that students with disabilities receive special education services tailored to their needs.

Autism Society Gala
The Autism Society hosted its Autism Awareness Gala at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on Nov. 13. Photo: Embassy of Qatar

“In our state, there are 180,000 people with autism, and only about a third of them receive formal services, so there’s much more to do,” Casey said.

The need for more autism services is a global one. Qatari Ambassador Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad Al-Thani talked about the strides his country has made in raising awareness of the disorder. That includes putting forth a U.N. resolution in 2007 to recognize April 2 as World Autism Day.

In 1999, Qatar also established the Al-Shafalah Center for Children with Special Needs, which provides cutting-edge medical care and research for people on the autism spectrum. And in 2016, it opened the Renad Academy for students with autism.

“The efforts of the different sectors of the Qatari community have led to a significant shift in perceptions of autism,” Al-Thani said. “When I see the incredible accomplishments of tonight’s special guests, this idea is reinforced. [These] exceptional talents … show us that anyone, so long as they are empowered and embraced by their support system, could achieve magnificent feats.”

The talents showcased at the gala included a performance by Christopher Duffley, a 17-year-old musician, speaker and podcaster who is both blind and autistic. Duffley released his first CD, “Eyes of My Heart,” in 2013 and launched his own podcast, “Mission Possible,” in 2016.

Autism Society Gala
Qatari Ambassador Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad Al-Thani shakes hands with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Photo: Embassy of Qatar

Meanwhile, autistic artist Stephen Wiltshire, 44, displayed his unique talent for painting intricate, lifelike cityscapes from memory. These are often done after only brief exposure to the subject — as seen in a recent work depicting Doha based on a 30-minute helicopter ride over the Qatari capital. Wiltshire then worked the piece for a week at the Phillips Collection in D.C. before presenting it at the gala.

Comedian Trevor Noah, in an on-stage Q&A with CNN’s Michelle Kosinski, talked about pursuing his own lifelong passion: laughter, which came in handy growing up in South Africa.

“We figured out how to use comedy as a tool to process things in the nation and in the world that we were living in, because at the end of the day, things are going to happen to you and comedy doesn’t diminish what those things may be … but I do feel that … laughter is something that encourages you to remember your better self,” he said.

In addition to making people laugh, Noah said his other mission is “engaging young people in news and politics.”

Autism Society Gala
Sen. Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) was instrumental in passing the first version of the Autism Act in 2006. Photo: Embassy of Qatar

“People think of it as something that is only for the elite, it’s something that’s only for old people, whereas politics is from the Greeks — it’s for the people. And so for me, it’s how do we distill the news to something everyone can appreciate … and how can we hold people in power to account?” he said.

On that note, Noah didn’t miss an opportunity to take a subtle swipe at America’s most powerful politician, Donald Trump. “We’re living through a unique time in history now. We’re living through a time we’ll never experience again, where we’re about learning about the presidency of the United States at the same time as the president of the United States,” he quipped.

But he also offered praise for the former reality TV star. “Don’t ever forget how charismatic the man is. He makes jokes, and you see people laughing along. Even if you don’t like him, he’s great at delivering a joke in the moment with the audience, and so what I learned very early on in life was that’s a powerful tool that you can use to connect people.

“I think that’s what a healthy relationship in a democracy should be,” he added. “If you travel around the world, basically the place where you can do comedy is generally the place where you’ll find the most freedoms.

Autism Society Gala
Autistic artist Stephen Wiltshire created a detailed drawing of Doha after a 30-minute helicopter ride over the Qatari capital. Photo: Embassy of Qatar

“Comedy wasn’t legal in South Africa for many years because of apartheid and free speech was limited, and so comedy as an industry was very new when I was starting out,” Noah recalled. “And I stumbled upon it in a random bar. There were some guys telling jokes, and my cousin was drunk and he got into a fight with one of the guys upstairs and forced me to jump onto the floor in his honor, which was something I didn’t plan on doing. Next thing I was on the stage and I felt at home.”

Noah has done more than find a home in comedy — he’s made a serious name for himself as the host of Comedy Central’s Emmy Award-winning The Daily Show, and he was recently named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year.

Noah’s global success, however, didn’t quite impress his mother the way he thought it would. “When I went to The Daily Show, I phoned her and said, ‘Hey mom, I’ve got big news for you. I’m going to be hosting The Daily Show.’ She said, ‘Oh I don’t know what that is but congratulations…. Oh and big news, your brother’s going to be on the student council in school, so all my sons are doing really big things!’ I said, ‘Yes, I understand that you’re a mother in this moment, but The Daily Show I think surpasses the school council.”

Her retort was quick: “Yes, but where you ever on the school council?”

Noah had to concede that he wasn’t.

If he had not wound up in comedy, Noah said he might’ve pursued a very different line of work.

“My dream was to always become a police officer. I loved sirens, I loved driving fast, I loved giving people warnings. I always think the most effective police are not the ones who give people tickets or arrest them — they warn you, because I always remember those police,” he joked.

Noah recalled being pulled over shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, although he wasn’t sure what he had done. “Where I come from, the policeman tells you what you’ve done. Here they make it like a multiple choice thing, which is very strange. And so the policeman pulled me over and asked me, ‘Do you know why I pulled you?’ And I said, ‘Well, shouldn’t you be telling me?’

The officer informed him that he was pulled over not for speeding, but for passing a police car. Noah’s response was straightforward. “‘Oh, you were going slowly. That’s why I passed you.’ And he didn’t know what to say.”

After the officer explained that cars should not pass the police, Noah understood — somewhat. “So I go, ‘OK, I can understand that as a man, you don’t like being passed. From now on I won’t do it to your ego and I’ll stay behind you.’ And from that morning, I’ve never made that mistake ever again.”

Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.



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