Ernie Els reveals son Ben's autism

03/08/2008 at 08:30 AM ET

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.

For more of Ernie’s interview, click ‘continue reading.’

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.

Source:  AP


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Mari on

Despite being a top golfer, I’ve always had the impression that Ernie Els is an intensely private man. It does speak volumes that he has decided to promote this cause and – most importantly – sought the opinion and support of all his family before doing so.

The PGA Tour is well-known for it’s efforts in supporting all sorts of very good causes in the community and I’m sure that they will be supporting Ernie in his endeavors to create autism awareness.

Well done Ernie.

nosoupforyou on

I am a social worker. Many of my “kids” have autism. Now, families are even having more than one autistic child.

It IS an epidemic and we better find a way to stop it.

akent on

Having a grandson who has been diagnosed with mild autism or developmental delay I have seen first hand how financially devastating it can be for families to obtain the treatment their children need. Along with raising funds to help less fortunate families, hopefully Mr. Els will be able to raise the awareness of the lack of insurance coverage for these children. These families can drown in debt trying to pay for something that is an epidemic while their insurance companies deny their claims. It’s time for this to stop.

kristen on

I am sorry, but being the mother of a child with autism I see how devastating the rhetoric organizations like Autism Speaks use actually is.

My child is a gorgeous face on a poster for them so they can raise more money about this “devastating condition” that is “ruining families” “stealing children” “causing pain, suffering” “dissolving marriages.” You name the problem and Autism Speaks shows how autism causes it.

Why does this organization Autism Speaks have no autistic people on their board? Do they want to keep autistic teens and adults silenced?

I respect celebrities like this golfer who want to help their child. I want to help my son have an excellent life. I can’t do that by letting an organization teach him that they way he is has “ruined” my family.

My son is autistic. I will NOT teach my son that he is anything less in my eyes than he would have been had he been “normal.” My child is a gift, a blessing, a miracle walking. And he’s autistic.

He needs some help in some areas but don’t we all!! Some celebrity needs to stand up and proudly say their child is autistic…not “cure them” “admit it” or “reveal it”

It makes me want to cry. Does Sigourney Weaver have children? Cover her – that woman understands neurodiversty…and mabye some of these celebrities should Google it.

Kirrily, CBB Contributor on

My sister has a son and daughter with mild autism/developmental delay (current diagnosis at ages 7 and 5 is pervasive developmental disorders but new funding for more intervention only kicks in again at 9 for this category they have just been told).
There is constant heartbreak and we’re constantly wondering whether they’re going to have a normal adulthood.
They’re both gorgeous, happy, delightful children (most of the time!), they bring joy to our lives everyday, but it is hard to find the money to make sure we do everything right by them.
It’s hard getting information on where to go and what to do let alone the money to do it all!
It’s great more celebrities are speaking out about autism and how hard it is on families.

Johnny on

I firmly believe that one day the link between the childhood vaccination campaign and autism will come to light and the vaccination campaign will be stopped or significantly altered to prevent more unnecessary damage to our children.

Sanja on

I’m not sure how to ask this without sounding offensive, but is autism this prevalent only in Western societies or is it as high in the rest of the world? Personally, I have never heard of anyone with an autistic child in our society, and I wonder if this is because children are not diagnosed correctly or because there just isn’t such a high number of autistic cases present. Is there, perhaps, a study done on this that you know of?

zacknolden on

Hey Guys,

We are launching “The 3rd Annual Charity Car show Sunday, April 27, 2008” a car show for the benefit & welfare of special & autistic children, as well as children with disabilities brought to you by Edelbrock. These little children are hoping for your minimal support. Remember: Helping is not a burden. To you guys & this site’s Moderator, THANK YOU!

Full Details:

Frank Lapointe on

As good as a golfer that you are. You are a better Father. Your son Ben is blessed to have you and you and your wife will do eveything you can for your son Ben. You are in our prayers.

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