By Sean Fawcett

In recent years, there has been an awful lot learned, and said, about autism, or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). A complex neurobiological and developmental disorder, one in 68 newborns in the United States exhibit some form of ASD.

One of the traditional characteristics of ASD, which includes Asperger’s Syndrome, is difficulty in communicating with - and therefore trouble relating to - others in social situations. Additional characteristics include a restricted range of activity, lack of coordination, and repetitive behaviors requiring those with ASD to adopt strict routines that challenge flexibility and adaptability. Team sports, like soccer, basketball, volleyball, baseball and softball, which require constant communication to promote and enhance teamwork, are difficult for children and adults with all forms of ASD.

Conversely, individual sports like swimming, cycling, track and field, bowling, archery, and golf come more naturally, and have been shown to have positive impacts for people living with ASD.

People with ASD thrive in repetitive tasks and golf is a game where success is built upon practicing and mastering repetitive physical actions from swinging a club to pitching, chipping, and putting the ball. The sport is often played alone or in small groups of up to four players, and mostly in quiet, with strict rules of etiquette. This makes golf a terrific activity for individuals with autism, helping them find success within themselves and their strengths and comfort levels. In other words, golf, a quiet game that requires thinking, repetitive motions, and strict rules of etiquette, is in the comfort zone for many individuals living with ASD.

Based on these principles, World Golf Hall of Famer and multiple major winner Ernie Els, one of the biggest names in golf over the past 25 years, began The Ernie Els Foundation for Autism in 2009, after announcing that his son, Ben, had been diagnosed with autism. Els is now a leading advocate for introducing golf to children and individuals with ASD.

A shining example of how great golf can be for individuals with ASD is New Jersey golfer and professional tour hopeful Samantha Perrotta, a resident of Bordentown. Perrotta, who has only been playing golf for a little more than five years, competed in the National Women's Golf Association (formerly The Suncoast Tour) in Florida for three months during the winter of 2017. A highly accomplished NJSGA, Golf Association of Philadelphia and South Jersey Golf Association tournament golfer, Perrotta, who plays out at Old York Country Club in Chesterfield in Burlington County, has built a very impressive resume of golfing success in a short amount of time.

Last summer, Perrotta was undefeated (16-0) in WGAP team matches. In 2013, she scored big with tournament victories in the NJSGA Women's Public Links Championship, the SJGA Arlene Cherwien Cup and the SJGA Amateur.

She has also placed highly at various other events at professional and major championship venues like the Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club, where the LPGA conducts the ShopRite LPGA Classic, and Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., a traditional U.S. Open host course, where Perrotta won the 2015 Howe Cup, a two-day tournament held on Merion’s East and West Courses.

In 2016, Perrotta was the medalist at the U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifier at Echo Lake Country Club in Westfield.

In 2017, Perrotta shot 2-under par to win the WGAP Tournament of Champions at Waynesborough C.C. and she won the Executive Cup at the Vidanta Resort in Nuevo Vallarte, Mexico, shooting 144 in two rounds on courses designed by Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman.

Perrotta has also competed in several Symetra Tour events. The Symetra Tour is the developmental tour for the LPGA.

“Golf has helped me a lot, socially,” said Perrotta. “It’s also very nice to win after working hard at something.

“My coaches have helped me tremendously,” Perrotta said. “Dick Smith got me feeling more confident with myself as a whole. He also helped me hit the ball solid more often. And I still use his bunker technique that he taught me. Geoff Jones took me to a higher level of playing. He made me feel better about myself overall. He always believes in me.”

Additionally, Perrotta is grateful for the strategic and emotional support of her sometimes caddie, friend, and golf professional, Dennis Huggins, and his wife, Susan of Valleybrook C.C. in Blackwood.

Facts about Autism and ASD:

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurobiological disorder characterized by deficits in social communication and social interaction as well as restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.

· One in 68 children, and one in 42 boys, in the U.S. are affected by autism

· Boys are 4.5 times more likely to have ASD than girls

· Autism is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the U.S.

· An estimated 2 million individuals in the U.S. are affected

· ASD occurs in children of all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds

· More children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with AIDS, diabetes and cancer combined

· Symptoms vary from child to child from mild to severe

· Recent studies show that most children are diagnosed after the age of 4(despite the fact that ASD can be diagnosed much earlier)

The above facts and are based on statistics from varied sources including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the prevalence statistics from the Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative and Autism Speaks.

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