Compleat Golfer is an official media partner with Els For Autism
Since opening its doors in South Africa in 2011, the Ernie Els Centre for Autism has focused on empowering parents and caregivers to help navigate their child on the Autism Spectrum. Although this is primarily accomplished through the guidance of an online tool, Rethink First, the facilitators work tirelessly to ensure families receive individualised attention.
In 2014, Els for Autism Global added its second focus, to use golf as another way of teaching individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The Ernie Els #GameON Autism™ Golf Programme was developed in collaboration with the PGA’s Reach and The First Tee. This offers children and young adults on the spectrum, aged from six to 23, access to golf. The programme is aimed at developing life skills, encouraging social interaction and promoting healthy living through golf.
One individual who has experienced the Ernie Els Centre and multiple GameON golf clinics, is 17-year-old Donovan Botha. He attends Felicitas School in Brakpan. His mother, Priscilla, first came to the centre in 2011 after turning to ‘Google’ to find services in South Africa.
Priscilla was at first sceptical about the programme, but once it was put into practice, the family were thrilled. She said that given the nature of the field at the time and how they had received very little support or helpful information up to then, she felt unsure of how the Els for Autism resources and techniques would provide her with the training and education she was looking for.
However, much has changed since that initial concern. Priscilla has been comforted by the positive impact the programme has made up to this stage. She feels that without the programme, Donovan would not have progressed as much as he has. ‘It helped him to be a part of the school. He was isolated and did not want to participate (and when he did it was inappropriate). Now he has friends that he talks about and a very active social life within school. They are also helping him to have a more active social life outside of school,’ she told Compleat Golfer.
Priscilla further explains the appreciation for Els for Autism in the changes in their life. For instance, when they began to struggle financially, it was a relief knowing they had the necessary help to continue. Donovan’s mother feels strongly supported by the adjustments the centre has made to her needs and feels that even if they could no longer afford schooling, they would be able to continue to teach Donovan, using the programme.
One recent addition to the programme offering is the GameON Golf Clinics. Donovan has attended a handful of them and simply ‘fell in love with the game of golf’, according to Priscilla. Before, he had a very limited understanding of and interest in the sport. By experiencing these clinics Donovan has now built his own golf club – using a stick and a piece of rubber pipe, attaching them with Sellotape and forming the shape of a golf club. He made a ball out of toilet paper and Sellotape, and has started practising frequently in his own backyard.
An experience Donovan feels proud to share with us is his meeting Ernie Els at his second clinic. Priscilla explained how important it was to prepare Donovan to recognise Ernie (in real life, given he has only seen him in photographs) for when he was going to meet him. However she says nothing could have fully prepared them for this magical moment.
Donovan says he was ‘surprised and happy’ when he met Ernie. He thought in that moment he wanted to be a professional golfer, just like him. Donovan quickly added that he ‘was very happy and felt extremely special when Ernie phoned him on Halloween’. He was also so thrilled to see Ernie again (in January 2016 at the GameON Golf Clinic during this year’s SA Open) and expressed his wish to invite Ernie to his 18th birthday.
Donovan also had another message to tell: Ernie Els is now at the top of his list of heroes, followed by John Cena, Batman and Spiderman.