x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Dubai pupils melt Iron Mike’s heart

The US former boxing champion, in Dubai for his one-man stage show Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, visited the Dubai Autism Centre to meet some of the 54 students aged 3 to 17.

Former American boxer Mike Tyson plays with children at the Dubai Autism Centre during his visit. Pawan Singh / The National
Former American boxer Mike Tyson plays with children at the Dubai Autism Centre during his visit. Pawan Singh / The National

DUBAI // He’s a former world heavyweight champion boxer, but yesterday Mike Tyson showed his softer side, spending the afternoon helping children with autism to paint and play with toys.

One boy, unhappy that Tyson had added a blue flower to a painting he was working on, spat at the sport star, but Iron Mike took it in his stride.

“I love this, love it,” he laughed as he wiped his face and hands with tissues hastily handed over by teachers. “He got me pretty good.”

The boy apologised soon after and it was back to fun and games.

The US former boxing champion is in Dubai for his one-man stage show Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, which runs this week.

He visited the Dubai Autism Centre for about an hour, listening to experts and meeting some of the 54 students, aged between three and 17.

Tyson chatted with Rahul, a teenager who surprised him with his in-depth knowledge of his career.

Then Rahul put him on the spot by asking about a World Wrestling Entertainment punch-out several years ago where he decked his own partner, Chris Jericho.

“It is good to meet you,” the teen said. “You have won many championships. I remember you are now in the WWE Hall of Fame but you betrayed Chris Jericho … now Chris Jericho is a good guy.”

Tyson smiled and explained that it was all just for television.

After his short meeting, Rahul said, “I recognise Tyson, I know his championships. I had a talk with him and it felt great.”

Hayula Mourad, the centre’s head of communications, said Tyson’s visit would help to spread awareness about autism.

“When celebrities come here the media comes too, and people talk about autism more,” Ms Mourad said.

“It is good for parents because then they are not shy to talk about it. It becomes normal and helps spread awareness and knowledge.”

Ms Mourad said meeting the children also gave the former boxer a better understanding about the condition.

“We also explained to Tyson how these children can be gifted but they can also have socially unacceptable behaviour, like when the little one spat on him,” she said.

“It was his way of expressing his displeasure, so instead of saying, ‘No, don’t touch my picture’, the child reacted.

“Even the older boy who spoke to Tyson supported him but said what he thought. Each child is unique and different.”

After listening to a short presentation about autism, Tyson asked whether there had been any breakthroughs in research, the reason behind the condition and whether the children were able to communicate effectively.

Ms Mourad explained that while research was continuing, there was no conclusive data on the reasons behind a child’s autistic traits.

Other experts talked about how autism affected verbal, social and communication skills, adding children with autism were not aware of their environment and showed repetitive behaviour and interests.

As Tyson made his way around the classrooms, he sat with the youngsters, helped them fit various shapes, hugged them and tickled them to make them laugh.

“Normally this is what I do. I go to schools when I’m in the US or in Europe,” he said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to meet the children and happy to be able to help.”

Staff at the centre hoped his visit would lead to broader understanding and acceptance of autism in the community.

“The visit reflects Mike’s concern about children in general and their well-being,” said Sara Baker, head of the centre’s community service unit.

“I was touched with his keenness to understand and find out more about the disorder.

“His encounter with some of our students has emphasised some of the characteristics of autism and his ability to accept their differences.”

The centre aims to successfully integrate its pupils into society using therapy. It is working to build a bigger centre to accommodate 300 youngsters.