Ernie Els reveals son Ben’s autism

With the hopes of bringing attention to what he and many others believe to be an “epidemic,” PGA golfer Ernie Els arrived at the PODS Championship in Florida this week with an Autism Speaks logo sewn on his golf bag — and in the process revealed that his 5-year-old son Ben does, indeed, have autism.

Ernie admits that he was not familiar with autism just a few short years ago. But at a time when an estimated 1 in 150 children is being diagnosed, and boys at a higher rate than girls — like more and more families around them — Ernie, 38, and his wife Leizl have found their lives profoundly affected by the disorder.

It’s been a bit of a challenge…Like any family will tell you, it’s not easy. And it’s a change of life, a change of priorities. You’ve got to be ready for it. And it’s happening more often. I never knew about it, never thought about it, until it’s in your lap.

The level of functioning and degree to which symptoms are exhibited varies widely among children and adults who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While Ernie didn’t go into specifics about the severity of Ben’s condition, he did say that his son was “quite affected,” adding, “he’s a lovely boy.” Families dealing with the diagnosis often find themselves overwhelmed by not only the costs associated with treating their children, but also by disagreement within the autism community about what those best methods of treatment are.

Acknowledging as much, Ernie says that he hopes by bringing attention to the issue that uncertainty will eventually be alleviated.

It’s so new to everybody, that a lot of people have different ideas. After seeing just about every [specialist] in the world, I decided on this path we’re going to go…I’ve got a bit of a profile where it will grab attention. That’s what this problem needs. And with that, hopefully, more people will get involved and we can start getting to what causes it and what can be done to help it.

As a professional athlete, Ernie is in a unique position: He and Leizl will most likely never need to worry about finding the funds to get Ben the help he needs. But, as a professional athlete, Ernie can also use his identity and fame to raise funds for others, as well as raise funds for autism research. It’s something Ernie said he’s eager to do.

We’ve been taking our time and trying to assess what we need to do, what we want to do. We’re doing a lot for Ben. But there are a lot of kids like him out there, and worse than him. We’re in a fortunate position where money is not a real problem for our family. We can get Ben the right help. Some people are not in the same position. We’d like to raise money for the poor. And I’d like to know why [the rise in diagnoses] is happening. It’s gone crazy the last couple of years. It’s an epidemic.

Ernie said that the decision to go public was first cleared by his eldest child Samantha, 8, whom Ernie praised for being “unbelievable” with her younger brother. His daughter, Ernie says, “is more like a mother figure, not a sister figure” for Ben and he and Leizl “wanted [Samantha] to feel comfortable, because obviously, this is going to get attention.” Bob Wright, co-founder of Autism Speaks, is thrilled by the family’s decision. Says Bob,
It’s very important having prominent people get out in front of this issue. It’s hard to get people to do that. Having Ernie, somebody who is prominent all over the world, to get out here is immensely helpful.

In agreement is Ernie’s fellow PGA golfer Cliff Kresge. After seeing the logo on Ernie’s bag Cliff revealed that his own 8-year-old son, Mason, also suffers from autism. Says Cliff,

We need someone [of Ernie’s] stature to get some notice to this problem that we all have. There’s so many people like that out there, and so little is being done. If they can find cures for cancer, surely they can find a cure for autism. Hopefully, with Ernie’s notoriety, we can get to the bottom of this.

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