Why One College Basketball Coach Keeps Fighting To Spread Autism Awareness

Taken from CBS Sports  which is found   HERE.

It happened recently at big brother Ryan’s basketball practice. Little brother Owen was in attendance, and he happened to go up to another boy who was dribbling a ball by himself. Owen did what many kids would do.

He walked over and said, “Hi.”

Then his mom nearly burst into tears.

Kristen Skerry and her husband, Towson coach Pat Skerry, are parents to two boys. The younger of the two, Owen, is autistic. To see him make huge progress, merely by proactively being social and communicating verbally with a kid his age — without encouragement — was a huge achievement.

Owen was diagnosed as autistic before he turned 2. Kristen, a doting mother who was so intent to capture every step, movement and milestone, suspected by the time he was 18 months that her son could be autistic. Owen’s first words weren’t coming. He simply wasn’t talking. Speech pathologists and doctors told the Skerrys they could wait longer to be certain. But Kristen couldn’t help but Google other warning signs. Owen would needlessly bump into walls, and he’d look strangely out of the corner of his eyes.

“When he was 2 and got the diagnosis, I was ready to run with it,” she said. “I had the energy, accepted it, and got services ready. And you know, the psychologist that met with Owen, after we got it [the diagnosis] she said, ‘I can give you a diagnosis now or we can wait.’ And I thought, Wait? That’s when she said, ‘Some people aren’t ready to hear it.'”

***Pat Skerry was hired as Towson’s coach in 2011. He’s essentially been at the job from the time Owen was diagnosed, which hasn’t been easy on either of them. Skerry’s done well, averaging 19 wins the past four seasons, and he’ll likely hit that mark again this season (Towson is 14-10, has won six of its past seven). But the job takes him away from home often, and so he’s missed out on a lot of Owen’s development.

A few years back, when Towson was scheduled to play on national television in the middle of conference play (CAA schools don’t get many of those opportunities) he came up with the idea to have an Autism Awareness Game. He wanted to help his son, and the cause around curing autism, in whatever way could help from the position of being a basketball coach.

No push for donations, just merely a day to honor his son and try to help other families battling the affliction. Before long, the simple gesture turned into a national endeavor: “Coaches Powering Forward for Autism.”

Skerry’s good friend in the coaching profession, TCU assistant Tom Herrion, also has a child, Robert, with autism. He’s helped push the cause, and it’s made reverberations beyond basketball. The project started with the Skerrys mailing puzzle-piece pins to coaches around the country. And suddenly, Hall of Famers were wearing these pins and many people saying, “What’s that for?”

Now it’s become an understated but powerful gesture. Skerry was stunned, a couple years back, to turn on Duke-North Carolina and see Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams supporting the cause.

“That’s where the awareness comes from,” Pat Skerry said. “When the extremely popular guys, when John Calipari or Bill Self has a pin on, that’s where someone goes, ‘What is that?'”

When you watch college basketball this weekend, pretty much every college coach will have a blue puzzle-piece pin attached to his lapel. That’s for Autism Speaks. That’s for Owen Skerry and Robert Herrion.

Owen turns 8 in two weeks. He’s in a private school now, but Kristen still isn’t comfortable with him taking the bus, so she drops him off and picks him up every day. And three days a week, a therapist comes to the family’s home to help him do simple things, like play hide-and-seek or try new social activities. Sometimes this backfires. Sometimes Owen likes his routine and hates trying new things, things that make his world feel violated.

“He can be very rigid, and once we start certain things, he expects those every day, and that can cause problems for him, and he can get very upset,” Kristen Skerry said. “There’s the social piece of being around other people and wanting to engage with them, and not wanting to be on his own.”

Owen’s behavior can be unpredictable. When he was 5, he loved going to his dad’s games and sitting in the student section. The next year, he wanted to be high up in the stands, away from everything. This season, he’s as involved at games as he’s ever been. He’s growing up, but at his own pace. This Saturday, for Towson’s home game against William & Mary, the team is even bringing in an adult with autism to be the public address announcer. The school is pledging support for so many who live with the condition. The greater Baltimore area has specific programs to help adults living with autism.

It should be a pretty special day inside the new SECU Arena.

This might be the last time Coaches Powering Forward for Autism is held so late in the season, though. College basketball coaches help raise millions every year through Coaches vs. Cancer. Skerry’s collaboration with Autism Speaks always comes the weekend after the coaches where their sneakers on the sidelines and help raise money. Skerry wants to raise money too, but mostly he wants people to become more aware of how prevalent autism is. The latest statistics show 1 in 68 children are diagnosed on the spectrum.

He doesn’t want to be pushy. The earnestness of the deed reflects on the nature of the condition.

So the next step is to get some sort of early season doubleheader, something explicitly tied to Autism Speaks and putting on a day of basketball with big programs. But for now, the grassroots effort has been one of the more inspiring, humble and effective campaigns in college sports.

Towson’s home tip is at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday. When Skerry gets home that night, it will be the one night all season that he doesn’t first pop in game tape. Instead, he’ll flick around the dial and check out all the games on TV, he’ll see coaches wearing pins and take a moment with his son to appreciate what’s being done, the love being shown, to help people discover more about what autism is and how the world is, hopefully, becoming a more considerate environment for those who live with a silent battle every day.

To donate toward autism research, you can do so here.


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