A father’s story about his son, autism, and making a difference
Ernie Els, Pro-Golfer
January 2015 | Originally published on Els for Autism Foundation
It is four years since our seven-year old son Ben was diagnosed with Autism. We’d suspected for a few years that something was wrong. I mean, there’s a process that every kid goes through. Crawl at nine months, walk at 12 months, and then start talking and so on. With Ben we started thinking: ‘Why is he not crawling? Why is he not walking? Why is he not looking me in the eye?‘ Things like that. We soon discovered he was quite profoundly impacted by Autism.
One in 68 children is affected by Autism and that was perhaps the most shocking thing about all of this; the number of people it affects. And you know, it hits the whole family hard. For a long time you are trying to figure out ‘What just happened to my life?’ You feel sorry for yourself and for your kid and for your family. And the tragedy is that even in this day and age, the kid who has Autism is often forgotten about. The feeling is that he’s almost a waste of time, which says a lot more about society than it does the child. It’s heartbreaking.
Ben’s condition was the main driving force behind our decision to relocate our base from Wentworth to West Palm Beach in Florida. The move has benefits for my golf, but more importantly we have been able to secure a more intensive form of therapy for Ben. And he’s doing great. He might act and say things a little differently from other kids, and he obviously has some difficulties, but he understands everything we say and is particularly in tune with our emotions; it’s almost like a sixth sense. And thank God he’s got such a nice nature. He’s a very friendly, very happy, very shy kid and the more loving attention he gets and the smiles that he sees, the better. Samantha, his older sister, is great with him.
Liezl and I are private people, but we are also very much in the public eye and we recognize that this gives us a platform to help raise funds and awareness for the causes of Autism and its possible treatments. It is something that we both feel very passionate about.
We established our Els for Autism Foundation in the spring of 2009. My first goal was to help create a Center of Excellence, a model for the world of what should be available to children on the autism spectrum. The Center will launch a global digital learning platform that will make best practices in education and therapy available to thousands of children around the world on the autism spectrum. The Center will also have on site education for ages 3-21, professional and medical services, research and transition to adulthood. We’re working with some of the best experts in the world to make the Center a reality.
Years from now people may remember me as a golfer and a major champion. But I’d like also to be remembered as somebody who took the issue of Autism and did something with it. The rest of my life, I’ll be fighting this thing…I hope you’ll join with me.
Read More from the FFH “Share Your Story” series:
Share Your Story: Surviving Lymphoma
Of course I knew that lifestyle choices could negatively impact your health, but the genetic component makes up almost all of the risk, right? I couldn’t have been more wrong.