Tiger Woods was aged two when he started playing golf.
Six months later, he made his first TV appearance – he was on the show for his golfing ability, not just because he was a cute kid.
By age five he was winning junior tournaments, by age eight he was settled into a practice routine that would become his norm.
He would practice for seven or eight hours a day – OK, not every day, some days he might just do four or five hours – but I think we can agree he was dedicated.
That early obsession paid off handsomely. This weekend just past, Tiger Woods won his 80th tournament as a pro golfer.
It was a great sporting comeback story- in 2016 and 2017 sports writers were getting great mileage out of asking whether Woods would even play again – and also one that sets up an intriguing future.
Woods is still only 42, no great age for a golfer. Few would bet against him adding to his haul of 14 majors, few would bet against him rising to number one in the rankings again. Few should ever bet against Tiger.
Tiger Woods, Golf and Autism
But, what does any of this have to do with autism. Tiger Woods does not have autism, this is not an attempt to claim a sporting great for the autism cause. The closest Tiger Woods has come to any link with autism is when he stated that he was in awe of just two golfers – Ben Hogan and Moe Norman.
Ben Hogan is interesting enough, his father committed suicide when he was just 9-years-old, the young Ben turned a deep depression and inner reflection into a golf obsession, honing his swing for hour after hour after hour. He went on to win nine majors.
Norman is less well known but in some ways even more fascinating. He had a single plane golf swing – essentially taking the club back and then hitting through the ball in exactly the same motion, think a pendulum going back and forth.
Norman also self-described himself as being autistic, golf was one of his obsessions and his unique way of thinking helped him develop a swing that took him to 55 victories and made him a legend of Canadian sport. He also got to travel the world and earn a fair few dollars.
Want to know how accurate Moe’s swing was? He used the same tee peg for four years without breaking it.
Being obsessed with golf is OK you see. In fact it might even be encouraged by some parents and coaches.
And it’s not just golf, it’s pretty much any sport.
Most of the world’s top tennis players put in dozens of hours of practice every week from the age of five upwards. Talented young footballers go to academies and try to find the odd spare hour to fit in their school work in amongst practice.
In the worst cases it is driven by parents with an eye on the future riches available – there is a lot of money in sport. In February, one golfer won $370,000 simply by finishing ninth in two tournaments in a row. That’s the guy who finished 114th on the US money list.
autism and obsessions
Even when it is the child’s true obsession, huge sacrifices often have to made. The parents of a talented junior tennis player might have to consider a financially destructive move to Spain or the US so their child can have the advantage of training at a leading academy.
Cases of moving abroad might be rare, but smaller sacrifices are incredibly common – the parents who cut back on work hours so they can ferry their talented child to an ever-expanding array of local practice sessions and matches. Obsessions are by definition time consuming and that’s for everyone in the family, not just the person with that obsession.
Why then, are obsessions enjoyed by our children with autism so often portrayed in a negative light?
Is it OK for a child to be obsessed with golf because that gets you outdoors, it’s a sport and it could become a career, but not to be obsessed with Minecraft or space or electricity pylons because the benefits are not so socially acceptable or easily defined?
Obsessions, niche interests, call them whatever, they are a great thing. Being obsessed with something can make you great at it, it can be your reason for getting up in the morning, it can be how you find success and how you can demonstrate talent.
Obsessions in all children, not just those on the spectrum, should be embraced, they are a chance to see what fascinates the child and to create a real bond.
Our son is fascinating with Minecraft, an obsession we could treat one of three ways.
We could try to really restrict his time building in Minecraft, allowing the odd spell here and there but also trying to always move him on to other things, get him to play outside more, maybe have less screen time.
We could leave him to it, allow him to play Minecraft for long spells but see it as his thing, his world, something we allow but don’t really understand.
Or there’s the third way. Embrace it, getting a user account to come into his worlds as a character, asking him questions, coming up with suggestions for him to build and even using it for extra education – creating a school area with numeracy problems to solve, having challenges that require research and perseverance to solve (building a fully-functioning lift system being a good recent example)
Unlike golf, an obsession with Minecraft might not lead to riches or become a career; it might not even be an interest that persists.
If it does, though, does that really matter?
What if the child who is obsessed with Minecraft or pylons or drawing dogs or Lego becomes an adult who still has those interests. Is that so different from an adult who makes a living hitting a little white ball towards a hole?
What anyone does doesn’t have to be hugely purposeful, it can just be fulfilling and enjoyable. Surely that’s enough for any child.