Sinclair Cares: Impact of physical activity on autism

The Els for Autism Foundation is especially focused on researching the impact that physical activity has on those with autism. (WPEC)

The sport of golf is helping to advance autism research.

Professional golfer Ernie Els opened a world class research and treatment center after his son was diagnosed with autism.

"It's not like you have a disease or anything," said Patrick Rooney, who wants to remind people he's just like everyone else.

"I know that I'm normal. I just do my best to think, 'OK, you have it, but it's not a big deal,'" Rooney said.

Rooney's father, also named Patrick, said when it comes to autism, a lot has changed over the past two decades.

"Most people now are aware of autism and the condition," the father said.

Rooney said awareness is key for his son and others with autism to live a full life.

"It's been unbelievable, really, the recognition by our society as a whole. At the time, they had it at 1 in 600 kids that had autism. Now, it's down to 1 in 66," the older Rooney said.

"Autism is such a broad spectrum, and it's very difficult to determine what interventions are going to work with what people," said Dr. Marlene Sotelo with the Els for Autism Foundation in Jupiter, Florida.

While the center offers education, therapy and specialty services, it also does research.

"We're looking at brain function, and is there a difference in the brain of someone with autism and not only that one individual but are there individuals with similar brain patterns?" Sotelo said.

The foundation is especially focused on researching the impact that physical activity has on those with autism.

"We're not only teaching the actual sport of fitness or golf, but we're also infusing teaching strategies to address the specific core deficits in autism. So, social skills, communication, and emotional regulation," Sotelo said.

The research has already produced positive results.

"What we've noticed is that individuals engaged with physical activity are more responsive to their environment. They are producing more language, and they're reducing the amount of stereotypies or repetitive behaviors that they engage in," Sotelo said.

That can help those with autism engage in social relationships outside of work and school in the future.

"I know that it's something that can help people across the world," Sotelo said.

The Els for Autism Foundation also plans to begin researching the importance of having parents involved with early intervention.

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