Carter Bonas has a superpower.
We’ve all dreamed of having one, of being able to fly or teleport, or having incredible strength. But Carter will tell you he actually has a superpower, though it’s not what you might expect. His superpower is his autism.
Autism is a condition that causes challenges with social skills, behavior, and communication. As Carter explains it, that means, “Not being able to focus, having trouble with eye contact, not paying attention, and not understanding social situations.” It’s made his life difficult at times. Being different has led to him getting bullied and having a hard time making friends.
But after a few rough years, the 11-year-old has leaned into it. His Instagram profile declares, Autism is my superpower. “I have autism and I think it benefits me,” he says. “I’m very nice, and I tend to listen when people are talking. I have a big imagination, and I like to socialize with people.”
Carter’s autism causes him to obsess over things. As he’s learned to channel that hyper-focus, he’s become an elite golfer. He runs his own clothing business. He gives free golf lessons and motivational speeches, reminding kids and adults, “You can do anything. You just have to believe in yourself and always stay positive.” That relentless optimism in the face of trying circumstances is what makes Carter the 2022 SportsKid of the Year.
Carter didn’t speak until he was four years old. As he was growing up, learning was difficult. He often coped with uncomfortable situations by giving hugs, which opened him up to teasing from his classmates and confused some of his teachers. Tantrums were frequent, and he had a hard time finding a school where he could learn.
His parents, Thelma and Eddie Tennie, tried to find him an activity that would allow him to meet other kids. “I tried most sports, but I didn’t really like them,” Carter says. “Some of them there was running around, people pushing you, coaches yelling at you.”
Eventually a friend of his mom’s suggested golf. “The reason I like golf is because I don’t like being touched,” Carter says. “It’s relaxing. And I love nature, too.”
The family lives in Florida adjacent to the Country Club of Coral Springs, so Carter began taking lessons with Corey Henry, the pro at the club. Carter wasn’t exactly Rory McIlroy when he started. “Oh, he was terrible,” Henry says with a laugh. But the two worked and worked, for 12 or 13 hours a week, figuring out not just golf but how the teaching process would go with Carter. “We bonded,” says Henry. “Now we have our own rhythm. I know how he learns and he knows how I teach.”
Now, Carter hits the ball about 215 yards off the tee. Henry estimates he’s played in 15 tournaments and finished in the top four or five in at least half of them. “The sky’s the limit for him,” says Henry. “He has the physical and the mental ability.”
If you watch Carter play, you’ll notice that not only does he hit the ball far, but he looks good doing it, too. He wears clothes from his own apparel line, Spectrum Golf. (Autistic people are said to be on the autism spectrum.)
“I started my business because I was worried nobody would employ me in the future because I have autism and I had a hard time making friends,” Carter explains. “So I feared that when my mom and dad weren’t around anymore, it would be really hard for me to find the job or just make a living. So I wanted to start my own business, so I would never have to worry about that.”
Golf gear wasn’t Carter’s first idea. “He wanted to sell the vegetables in his garden,” says Thelma. “After he sat down and did the math and realized how much money he needs to support himself as an adult, he realized our backyard was not big enough to grow enough produce.” He also thought about selling rocks from the front yard.
Finally, inspiration struck and Carter hit upon something that people might actually want to buy. “After a lot of bad business ideas, I eventually came up with golf apparel,” Carter says.
He spends a lot of time in the hot sun, and he’s still very sensitive about how things feel against his skin. “We were spending lots of money on clothes that were supposed to be comfortable for me, but they weren’t because I have a skin sensitivity,” Carter says. “I wanted to start my own business so I could get comfy clothes and give comfortable clothes to people who have a skin sensitivity just like me.”
He and his parents ordered sample after sample online and eventually found fabrics that worked. He came up with the name Spectrum Golf and a logo, an S and a backwards G. “I was writing the SG, but I wrote the G backwards because I’m dyslexic,” he says. “My mom said to fix it, but my dad said it’ll look good. And it did.”
Carter isn’t the only one rocking SG gear. He met Anita Uwadia, who plays on the LPGA’s Epson Tour, and after chatting with her became her sponsor. He also had the chance to meet Ernie Els, the former U.S. Open winner who has a son with autism. Els, who’s nicknamed the Big Easy, and Carter spent time together when Els was playing at a tournament in Florida. Els gave Carter some pointers, and Carter gave Els some swag. Els also invited Carter and his parents to visit his Els Center of Excellence, a facility for autistic people. “What Carter’s done, starting up his own company and carving out a place for himself in society, that’s what we’re trying to achieve with the kids at our center,” says Els. “Carter’s story is an inspiration to other kids on the spectrum, so it was wonderful to have him there.”
That inspirational story is one Carter is eager to share. The kid who didn’t speak until he was four now delights in speaking to kids as well as adults about his journey. “Carter just does it naturally,” says Thelma. “I am amazed and shocked by him every time he gets on stage or in front of students. He lights up; he loves sharing how he overcame his struggles and how he works every day to overcome them.”
It’s an ongoing process. It’s still hard for Carter to make friends with kids his own age. He has a tough time sharing his toys because he can’t help but worry something will get broken. “For him, let’s play means you sit in the room with me, you play with your stuff, I play with my stuff,” says his mom. “But he’s getting better.”
And as always, he’s taking those compulsive traits and using them to his advantage. “He’s learning to channel those obsessions into his business, into his golf, where it’s becoming a positive thing,” says his mom. “Most kids might give up, but he does not have that ability to give up on something. He has to get it done, or he’s not gonna be O.K.”
And if there’s one thing Carter has shown, it’s that as long as he has his superpower, he’ll be more than O.K.