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Voices

Inside GCM: An intro to autism, courtesy of Mr. Egber

A visit with an employee of The Els Center of Excellence sheds light on the school’s work and those it serves.

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Merrick EgberThank you, Merrick Egber, for enlightening me. I admit that my knowledge of autism, its definition and how it affects people was lacking. For example, I had no idea that one in 68 children in the U.S. is impacted by autism, officially referred to as “autism spectrum disorder,” which is a neurological disorder characterized by deficits in social communication and social interaction as well as restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities.

My new perspective and understanding of autism was shaped in October. Representing GCM, I went to see for myself what World Golf Hall of Famer and 2018 Old Tom Morris Award recipient Ernie Els has developed in Jupiter, Fla., to address autism not only in the Sunshine State but worldwide.

One of the first people I encountered at The Els Center of Excellence, which is also home to the Els for Autism Foundation, was Egber (right). He is employed as an office assistant at the 26-acre wonder. The Els Center of Excellence houses two schools (lower and upper), where certified teachers oversee 240 students, age 3 to 22. In addition, the foundation has programs for adults and children as young as 18 months. An auditorium, two playgrounds, a golf practice facility and other amenities complete the campus.

If there is a more complete and focused place in the universe raising awareness of and tackling autism, please let me know. Egber, 31, can’t imagine anything like it exists. “I am happy. I feel respected. Appreciated. Do more things to my potential than I ever have in the past,” he says.

Egber informed me that he is classified as having high-functioning autism, which essentially means that he is cognitively higher-functioning than others with autism. Egber has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. “I’m proud of it,” he says.

Before he arrived at the center, Egber was employed by Best Buy for more than six years. His duties included answering questions from customers and managing the video game section. It may sound routine to you and me, but for someone with autism, that isn’t necessarily the case.

“I’ve had issues with anxiety. Part of being autistic is your emotions can be intensified. If I feel I let someone down, I will do whatever it takes sometimes to make it up,” Egber says. The post-Thanksgiving shopping ritual known as Black Friday presented a major challenge for Egber — and, ultimately, a turning point.

“Crowds aren’t my cup of tea. And my memory is erratic. If someone asked me where something is, I don’t always remember and have to refer them to a co-worker,” he says. “On Black Friday, my anxiety was through the roof, and I hated it. I was inundated with 50 questions every single minute. I felt I had very little room to breathe. That’s when I said I couldn’t do it anymore.”

Egber interviewed for other jobs, such as data entry positions, and he landed interviews but no job. He eventually inquired about work at The Els Center of Excellence, and it has been a perfect match. He didn’t, however, accept the job simply because of the Els name. “I came here because of my condition — not because I know about Ernie, but because I found out this was an opportunity I never had before that I was able to fulfill,” Egber says.

Golf means little to Egber, though he had heard about Els years before. It was his interest in video games as a youth that introduced him to Els. “I’m not too familiar with people in the sport. The first time I saw his name was Ernie Els Golf on Sega,” says Egber, referring to the retro video game console.

What Els is doing in Florida has gotten Egber’s full attention. “It’s always very important for a celebrity to take their name, status, to do a lot of good for the community. It shows that life for him isn’t just about golf,” Egber says. “The idea of using golf to improve life for people with autism is innovative. He uses his love of golf to do something deeper than people would ever imagine.”

What I witnessed and heard was even more than I had imagined. Thank you for the lesson, Mr. Egber.


Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.

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