U.S. JUNIOR AMATEUR
Valenzuela Lends Voice to Autism Awareness July 16, 2019 | Toledo, Ohio By Ron Driscoll, USGA

Alexis Valenzuela has more than defied the odds after being diagnosed with autism at an early age. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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Alexis Valenzuela was caddieing for his big sister, Albane, on her thrilling run to the final of the 2017 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship at San Diego Country Club, and he realized that he had his own story to tell, about overcoming autism.

“He was comfortable with talking about it,” said Diane Valenzuela, Alexis’ mother. “He just needed a little push, and the best thing about it was that it helped him.”

Golf Channel sent a video crew to the Valenzuelas’ home in Geneva, Switzerland, a few months later to produce a four-minute feature.

“At the end of the interview, Alexis told them he wanted to help others,” said Diane. “And afterward he came to me and said, ‘Mom, I want to help others, but I’m not doing anything.’”

A few days later, thanks to Alexis’ persistence, a charity and an accompanying website – alexisforautism.com – were launched. With the help of his family and their friends in the golf world, an inaugural event in Geneva raised more than $300,000 for genetic research. Plans are afoot for another event in early 2020 in the Bahamas, where the Valenzuelas now live, to raise awareness and to help fill a critical need for a full-time therapist whose services will be provided to those in need.

“He’s so happy, because it’s really fulfilling his life,” said Diane. “I see him like a knight – he wants to help, he wants to talk for others. It’s the beginning of an amazing story because he has a purpose in life.”

Alexis, 17, is competing in his first USGA championship this week at Inverness Club, having qualified by shooting his lowest competitive score ever on June 24 at Golden Ocala Golf Club, a 4-under-par 68. He struggled a bit in his championship debut with scores of 77-81, but was upbeat about the opportunity, and the elite company he was in.

“I’m at Inverness Club, one of the most famous golf courses in the world,” said Alexis. “It’s a really great honor. When I heard that there were more than 3,000 entries accepted for the qualifiers and to think that I’m one of only 156 at the end, that’s awesome. And like my mom said yesterday, there’s only going to be one kid happy at the end of the week.”

Alexis (right) caddied for his sister, Albane, during her runner-up run in the 2017 U.S. Women's Amateur. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

Diane Valenzuela knows the journey to Inverness was about far more than golf lessons and practice sessions for her son, who at age 3 was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which affects communication and behavior.

“The doctors told me he would never talk, never go to school,” said Diane, clearly exasperated. “Who says that? If you have a broken leg, you can’t walk, everybody knows that. But why do you put limits on a kid? He’s living proof and we want to show people – don’t be ashamed, you never know what amazing things can be done. These are amazing kids.”

When the Valenzuelas were given the disheartening news, rather than despairing, they sprang into action.

“Other countries are well ahead of us in Switzerland,” said Diane, whose husband, Alberto, played college golf for UCLA and is a banker. “When Alexis was first diagnosed, people would ask me if it was contagious. I went on the Internet, saw what was being done in Norway, Sweden, Canada, the States. But I had access to that information; what about parents who just believe a doctor? That’s a shame because it’s proven that if you start pushing these kids at a very young age you can do wonders.”

The breakthrough for Alexis came at age 5 with the Disney movie “Air Bud,” which he routinely watched up to six times a day. Alexis went on to mimic a youngster in the film who shares his ice cream with a dog, giving his own yogurt to the family’s dog.

“My mom was so happy to see me do it that she didn’t care about the mess he was making,” said Alexis with a laugh. “I think that was probably the biggest problem with me, that I didn’t have a real connection with anyone. I was in my own bubble, but fortunately and thankfully somebody kind of popped it.”

Alexis now speaks three languages and is weighing his plans for college one year from now, with the goal of playing competitively in school. Next week he will watch Albane, who is now a rising senior at Stanford University, as she competes in the Evian Championship in France.

“If I can do this, I know I can do many other things,” said Alexis. “I never expected to be standing on the first tee of a USGA event. I never expected to start a charity and have it grow that fast. But it’s not even about the money, it’s more about giving hope to everyone out there. I’m just grateful that my parents kept on fighting.”

Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.

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