Having set up the Els for Autism Foundation ten years ago, Ernie Els reflects on the growth of the charity and his relationship with his autistic son Ben in this week’s Player Blog presented by Enterprise Rent-A-Car.
When you have a child with autism, you become different yourself. Your life changes completely. I have young friends on Tour who are having children and feel as though their lives are going to change, but I say wait until you have a child with autism – then your whole Universe changes. That was the case with us for sure.
Where did the journey begin? We moved to London, myself and my wife Liezl, and started a family, first with my daughter Samantha in 1999. We always wanted to have three or four kids. Then our second child Ben was born in London in 2002, which was the year I won my third Major. My wife was heavily pregnant when I won, and Ben was born on October 6. I was luckily there for the birth of both of our children and the births were very natural both times. Soon we realised Ben’s behavioural patterns weren’t quite the same as Samantha. Ben looked a little different to Samantha which we thought was just because he was a boy – his head was a little bit bigger. Around two or three years of age we could sense he was a little bit slower than Samantha in terms of development. For instance, he didn’t even try and walk until around 18 months, he didn’t try to crawl too much either as Samantha had been doing at similar ages. We went on the internet to see what might be going on. We started going around London to different doctors and they told us his progress was just a little bit slow.
As time went on we got a little bit more nervous and confused to be honest. Finally, we found an autism website and looked at all the different diagnoses of autism, and we basically self-diagnosed Ben then at that early stage. Then we found more people who were experts in that field and that’s how we discovered he had autism. He’s going to be 17 in October. He’s quite severe in terms of the scale of autism, he’s not very verbal. We keep working with him and he has the most precious attitude to life. He’s very happy and we try to live in his world, instead of pulling him into our world – see what makes him tick and see what would be his perfect day. He’s got a great life.
We went public with our situation in 2008 when Ben was six years old. As soon as I spoke out, I can’t tell you how many emails and calls I had. I just told people I had a very normal family with a very normal autistic child! Parents with an autistic child will know what I’m talking about, when you bring your kid into a room with new people and immediately there is a change and their behaviour is very different to what people are used to. People look around and say ‘what’s wrong, why is your child naughty?’ and then you feel as though you have to step away as you don’t want to upset anyone. It’s the same when you get on an aeroplane. Once Ben was not even allowed to board a flight because they thought he was going to be a disruption. Can you imagine the emotional distress that caused my wife? These things happen, and still happen around the world, and are very upsetting for families because people stay away. So, I felt that if I speak out as a well-known golfer people might think ‘there’s a guy who’s like me with the same problem’.
I call my son an Angel sent from heaven. At first you are frightened, and you feel you are cursed by somebody – you think ‘Why us? Why me?’ but now I look back and I can’t imagine my boy Ben being any different. Whenever I’m away I can’t wait to get home again and spend time with him. At first it was tough to bond with him, to have that father and son bond. Like a lot of people, I’m a big sports fan, so at first I wanted to play football, cricket, rugby and golf with him – although he tries they’re not his strength! Because I spend so much time away from home the bonding was hard. I could always call my daughter Samantha on the phone or on FaceTime while I was away, but with Ben he couldn’t make eye contact or have physical contact with me for many years – which was really tough. But now we’re inseparable. We’ve got a great feel for each other, and although he doesn’t like to travel too much, I make sure that I make the time to spend with him. I couldn’t imagine my life now without Ben – it’s amazing.
You have to just try and stay as normal as you can as a family. In my world it was much easier than for a lot of other people. Although I am a golfer and it’s a highly-strung and introverted job, no lives are depending on me – it is only me who loses out if I don’t make a birdie. In fact, I don’t feel as much pressure as a normal family, where both partners have to work. A child with autism needs a lot of attention, especially if there isn’t a school where they can go. It’s a very intense life and I’ve seen a lot of families struggle – including my own, unfortunately. It’s a very difficult situation, until you find your groove with your child.
I have a friend in the US Special Forces who has a young child with autism. That’s real pressure. He would go away on missions for months at a time then would come back and have to try and bond with his son. As a parent of an autistic child you think you have a lot of pressure, then you hear about people like that and it puts things in perspective. His son is 11 now and I have tried to give him as much advice as I can, and have told him to ‘keep digging and working on the relationship as one day they will get you and they will never let you go’.
Ben is becoming a celebrity now! Whenever we are on the beach back in South Africa people come along and see Ben and they always come and say hello to him. Growing up his older sister Samantha has always brought friends over, and I have always pushed them towards Ben to go and get familiar with him, and although he was very shy at first, when he saw them with smiles on their faces then that was that. They always come and visit him now, and wherever we are in the world Ben has friends. He is particularly close to his friends who go to the school we set up in Jupiter, and he genuinely gets upset when he can’t go to school as he’s so keen to see them there.
He has a number of routines – the main one being that he wakes up between 6am and 6.12am every morning. He wakes up – I can hear the door from the other side of the house – and he comes to our room to open the door and close the door, doesn’t say a word. That’s our wake-up call! Next door to our room is the office and he goes in there to watch videos on his iPad (he has four around the house). God forbid there is a power failure – which there often is in Florida – as if he can’t watch YouTube on his iPad then we’re in trouble. My wife gets up to make his breakfast and after he eats that at 7.20am he’s in the car at 7.30am then into school at 7.45am with a huge smile on his face. I have tried to make the breakfast in the past, but Ben is so used to the routine he says, ‘no, mum makes breakfast!’
When we first set up the Foundation ten years ago in Jupiter, Florida – where we now live – it was very difficult. Although we were putting on lots of golf events to increase awareness about autism and raise money it felt as though we weren’t getting anywhere and didn’t have a plan – so there was a lot of pressure to get everything going. After two years of fundraising it really started to get moving, and to this day we have raised more than $50 million. We’re still trying to raise more money as we are always looking to expand – our next project is to add a running track, a swimming pool and a golf facility to the school.
When we set up the Els Centre for Excellence School in 2015, it was almost as if we were being selfish! For a while we wanted our son to have the very best education, and after setting up the Foundation in 2009 wandered what our next step could be, and it was my wife Liezl who was the driving force in deciding we should build a school for autistic people aged between three and 21. Now Ben is 17 and we’re looking at setting up an adult services training programme too as we have found that autistic adults can’t get into normal society. We’re looking to create jobs in the Florida community – whether through fuel stations, restaurants, grocery stores or golf clubs, for example. These kids love their jobs and there are so many coming through the school now that we want to train them so that they are employable when they leave the school. We want to make sure that everyone can work together in harmony within the community, and although it is ever evolving, we are very excited for the future.
To break the borders down that exist in society, we need to talk about autism more. When it comes to the subject it is still very quiet and I find all around the world – especially in South Africa, the Middle East and Asia – that people are too afraid to talk about it because they are afraid they won’t be accepted. The more we talk about it, the more people become normalised to the subject. That has been our mission from day one, and I’ve been very lucky in the US because people accept things more than other societies and we have had a much easier road to talk about autism and how we can increase awareness. Due to my position as a golfer people recognise me, so I thought that if I can talk about it openly other people will too, and gradually it will become more accepted.
To find out more about the Els for Autism Foundation visit https://www.elsforautism.org/