Driving Youth Sports to New Territory
Advocacy For individuals on the spectrum, sports can offer something beyond physical, social and emotional benefits. For the PGA Tour player and co-founder of the Els for Autism Foundation, Ernie Els, that’s a personal goal worth attaining.
Mediaplanet: What do you think is the biggest benefit of playing sports for a child with a disability?
Ernie Els: It helps them to be part of a social community while getting exercise in a fun way. Kids with autism often have some tough behaviors and exercise and sports have been shown to help reduce those behaviors. They need structured time to get up and get moving and sport provides that.
Individual sports can be especially beneficial, especially for those that have a lot of trouble socializing with others. So golf for example is a perfect match for many of these kids. They can play on their own and work towards improving their individual score.
MP: In what ways has golf and physical activity helped your son, Ben?
EE: Like many kids on the spectrum, Ben is often glued to the computer. Sport has provided a way to get him outside, away from the computer, moving and interacting with people. Ben also has some motor coordination challenges and so sport has been a key tool for helping him develop physical strength, coordination and balance. Baseball, soccer, horse riding, tennis, golf and swimming are all sports that we’ve exposed Ben to and they have all brought with them their unique benefits.
In fact, swimming and golf were the two sports that gave Ben and I some of our first opportunities to bond. In the beginning, finding something that we could enjoy doing together was hard, but teaching him to swim provided that. With golf, one of his favorite things since he was small was to watch me hit a driver. He would insist it was the only club I ever needed to hit! I don’t think I ever dared dream that I might one day see Ben hit a golf ball but a few years ago we started a special golf program for kids on the spectrum and this has got Ben participating in the game.
"Autism now affects 1 in 68 kids and the only way we are going to help those kids and adults get the support thatthey need is by facing it straight on."
He’s come a long way, from at the beginning not even wanting to get off the bus to go to the range, to now being able to address a ball and hit it. To many people this doesn’t sound like a huge achievement but for Ben it has been a massive step forward.
MP: In what ways have you been able to use your role as a professional athlete, as well as a parent of a child with Autism, to become an advocate for awareness and acceptance?
EE: Autism now affects 1 in 68 kids and the only way we are going to help those kids and adults get the support that they need is by facing it straight on. My wife Liezl and I are private people but we realized fairly early on that we had a platform to try and make a difference and help other kids like Ben. Some people find it difficult to talk about autism and how it affects their family so I think that by Liezl and I coming out and talking about the issue of autism and our son Ben it gave others the courage to do the same and open up a little more. That's a big step forward for a lot of people and crucial in helping to move the conversation about autism, and how we deal with it.
The golfing community, both on the professional and amateur side, has been incredibly supportive of our efforts over the last few years. Each April, select PGA TOUR events work with us to help shine a light on autism during autism awareness month. Also, thanks in large part to my fellow professionals, we have been able to raise millions of dollars through charity Pro Am events to support our Foundation’s initiatives. Through our nationwide Golf Challenge series, amateur golfers across North America have also stepped up to support the cause. The outpouring of support has been truly humbling and the awareness that we have been able to create has been crucial.
If we can get other companies both large and small to follow suit, I think we will have made massive strides in moving from awareness and acceptance to the proactive integration of individuals on the spectrum into our workforce and communities. Our kids have a lot to offer—unique abilities and talents that, with the right supports, can make them a great asset to organizations and society. That's the ultimate goal of Liezl and I: to help build a better future for those on the spectrum.