Confronting, understanding autism Els' biggest challenge


Brent Williams is a soldier in the U.S. Army who has been stationed at different spots around the world, from South Korea to New York to Georgia to Washington, D.C.

In January, he and his wife and three children will move to Germany, in the dead of winter, to begin yet another chapter of military life for the next three years.

He and his wife and his three autistic children under the age of 6.

"It's hard to even think about that," PGA veteran Ernie Els said. "It's very difficult stuff."

A quote by author Trisha Van Berkel says autism is neither a puzzle nor a disease, that it is a challenge but certainly not a devastating one. That it is about having a pure heart and being sensitive, about finding a way to survive in an overwhelming, confusing world.

That it is about developing differently, at a different pace and with different leaps.

Els has made it his mission to help those autistic children around the world -- like those of Sgt. 1st Class Brent Williams, like the golfer's 9-year-old son, Ben -- take more and more of those encouraging leaps.

Els never will have played a more important shot, never faced a more daunting challenge, never been more engaged or driven to succeed in a pursuit than he and wife Liezl are with this one.

"Most parents, when they find out their child is autistic, there is that initial shock," Els said. "It's a very hard one. … We want to be there to help them through that stage and to then make sure they get the best treatment possible for all kids.

"I believe we can make it better for all of them."

Els was speaking Monday from TPC Summerlin, where he hosted a final stop on his autism golf challenge, in which 30 regional events were held around the country at various public and private courses since May.

The format was about a team's fundraising skill as much as its golfing performance, with all proceeds going toward Els' foundation to fund a Center of Excellence near his home in Florida.

It is a $30 million project, the first of its kind, that would provide a physical and virtual hub to reach out to the world's autism community.

A standard definition: Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life and affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills. It includes a broad spectrum of symptoms that often are seen in language, speech and motor skills. It affects boys three to four times more than girls.

Treatment is usually more successful when geared toward a child's individual needs.

It is all stuff Williams and wife Consuelo deal with on a daily basis with two sons and a daughter, ages 2 to 6, living with autism.

"It has strengthened us 100 times over with our patience level," said Williams, who was in town from Maryland to play in the Els challenge finale. "There is no trace of (autism) in either family chain. It's definitely a challenge. But all the kids love school, and that has been something we have used as a trigger for them as part of their treatment. And now our (4-year-old) daughter is helping our youngest son with things like colors and shapes and numbers, which is helping her social skills. All three kids are very close."

The ranges of autism reach from mild to severe and define what spectrum a child is on. The most controversial issue surrounding it might be the cause, of why a couple such as the Williamses would have three autistic children.

Some support it being caused by genetic factors and others environmental. Some believe it is a combination of the two. Vaccinations. Diet. Immune system. Climate. All have been targeted as potential reasons for a child being diagnosed.

"Over time, you start to learn how to cope with it and how to live with it and how to better your child's life," Els said. "But educationally wise, there are many things we can do better. That's why we want to open this center, to share and gain information worldwide and work from there.

"With our son, Ben, he is at an age where we understand his habits and we understand his life and we understand what he needs and wants. You learn through experience. We go through a learning curve each and every day with autism.

"I feel this (golf challenge) has been a coming-out party for the autism community. It has been unbelievable."

Els was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in May, a three-time major championship winner and about as global a player as the game has known for decades, referring in his acceptance speech to his "beautiful son Ben, who I believe will play the game one day. … He'll sit there for hours and just watch the golf ball take off in the blue sky."

Ernie Els dreams of building a place where no autistic child across the planet is forgotten.

There is no more important shot in his bag.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 3 to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday on "Monsters of the Midday," Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

 

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