By Jeff Shain, PGATOUR.COM contributor
VALDOSTA, Ga. – Mason Kresge’s last report card was filled with nothing but As and Bs. He enjoys playing video games – sometimes too much, perhaps – and can engage you with all sorts of information about the stars and planets.
You might not even notice he’s autistic.
“He’ll be 13 in August, and he’s come a long ways,” dad Cliff Kresge said with a hint of pride. “He’s kind of the poster child of how far kids can come if they get the right help at an early age.”
April is national Autism Awareness Month, where sharp-eyed observers might sense a blue motif to Saturdays on the PGA TOUR and Web.com Tour. Pros have dressed in blue to help call attention to a brain disorder not always quickly identifiable but prevalent enough to affect an estimated one in 88 U.S. children.
It hits particularly close to home on the tour, where Ernie Els has been tireless in raising funds for an education center since disclosing son Ben’s autism five years ago.
Before Els, though, was Kresge. Operating on a far smaller platform than the Hall of Famer, his Kresge’s Krew Foundation has raised some $350,000 over the past five years for autism care in East Tennessee.
“Every little bit helps,” he said. “It doesn’t go far enough, I promise you. But to me, awareness is the biggest thing.”
To Kresge, now in his 13th season on the PGA TOUR or Web.com Tour, autism awareness isn’t just a glossy buzzword. Without early detection, he believes Mason’s development would not have allowed him to keep reasonable pace with other kids his age.
The seventh-grader attends public school in the Orlando area, where just two of his seven classes are specialized. The other five are taken alongside the mainstream populace.
“We try to get him in as many normal situations as possible,” Cliff Kresge said.
Not that those situations don’t sometimes bring unusual challenges for Kresge and wife Judy. Autistic people often think very literally, not able to grasp idioms or turns of phrase.
“If I tell him it’s raining cats and dogs,” Kresge said, “he’s going to look for cats and dogs falling from the sky. They don’t process information the same as you or I will.”
They also rely heavily on structure and routine, to the point that a slight disruption can suddenly take on unforeseen proportions.
Some folks may recall a heartwarming story last month about a Utah restaurant’s efforts to appease an autistic girl who wouldn’t eat because her hamburger was “broken” – a kitchen worker had innocently cut it in half.
In a similar vein, Kresge recalled a somewhat noisier situation in which a teacher had relocated Mason’s desk.
“Somebody else near him was talking and they wanted to move [the other student],” the golfer said. “So they moved [Mason], and that’s the last thing you want to do.
“He went crazy. Now he’s disrupting the whole class – ‘This is my seat. I sit right here!’ That kind of stuff. They just didn’t understand. Move somebody else.”
Such outbursts, though, are allayed by a confidence that for the most part, Mason can intermingle and hold his own among peers. He’s fascinated by science, astronomy in particular.
“He knows how many miles the moon is from us, or how far the planets are,” Kresge said. He downloads much of his information from the educational website BrainPOP or its cellphone application.
The Internet also has helped Mason understand his own condition, asking his dad if he displayed certain symptoms when he was younger.
The autism spectrum is wide, though, and no two cases are alike. That’s why Kresge places such emphasis on early awareness and recognition. It may take time to find a therapy that reaches a particular child.
“That’s the tough thing,” Kresge said. “There’s no clear-cut answer of what you should do, so therapy for my kid may not work for your kid.
“[Mason] was scared of animals when he was a kid – he thought they were a little intimidating. Some autistic kids gravitate toward animals. Then there’s music therapy – some people love music, some people hate it, some are real sensitive with the hearing part of it. Sometimes it’s just trial and error.”
It can be a frustrating process for parents, the stress taking its toll on plenty of marriages. Kresge’s own first marriage didn’t survive; Judy is his second wife.
But when something clicks, it can be an amazing thing. Kresge recalls a day perhaps a year after Mason was diagnosed. A therapist gave him one of those swirly straws that twists in circles and asked him to blow into a bucket of bubbles – an experiment in working his mouth.
“I’m telling you, it like opened him up. It was the coolest thing,” he recalled. “It was just a trial-and-error thing, but he was laughing and having such a good time. I’d never seen him so happy. It just opened his world up.”
Kresge already was working to establish his foundation when Els went public with Ben’s autism. They had a chance to meet a few weeks later at Hilton Head, where they pledged to help each other’s efforts.
Kresge occasionally rounds up fellow pros for one of Els’ fundraisers. The Hall of Famer, in turn, has played three times in Kresge’s event in Kingsport, Tenn. Judy Kresge grew up in East Tennessee, and needs there are greater than in Orlando.
“Let me tell you something – when Ernie Els comes to East Tennessee, it’s a big deal,” said Kresge, who also got country music star Vince Gill to his inaugural event.
“Ernie’s such a great guy, such a great draw all over the world. He’s making huge headway throughout the world that you just wouldn’t know about – here, South Africa, Europe, different places.”
Though Kresge works a considerably smaller platform, he doesn’t work in anonymity. Two years ago, it was Kresge – not Els – who Golfweek magazine honored as its Father of the Year.
“I just want to open people’s eyes that [autism] is out there,” Kresge said, “and that you can do something about it.”