Towson Coach Pat Skerry spreading the word about autism awareness

Owen Skerry slumped into the last row of golden seats and cupped his ears, a preemptive strike to block out the noise usually generated on game days. But on this Sunday, there was only silence inside an empty SECU Arena, and it threatened to disrupt the routine so important to the 4-year-old autistic child, whose father, Pat, coaches the Towson men’s basketball team.

“Can you tell me what’s wrong?” Owen’s mother, Kristen, asked as he rocked around and kicked a nearby chair. It turned out he wanted juice. Kristen pointed to Owen’s lap, at the computer application that helps improve his verbal skills. “Can you show me on here? Can you show me juice?” she asked.

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Owen tapped the screen twice, and an automated voice piped through the speakers. “Candle juice,” it said. Owen giggled at the nonsense phrase. He had developed a keen sense of humor with his limited vocabulary, asking for popcorn and bagels during bath time. These small moments of growth were cherished by the family, but having an autistic child means the process is never over.

To the Skerrys, the process involves reviewing the day’s schedule before leaving the house in the morning so Owen won’t be surprised and throw a tantrum. It includes driving Owen to the speech therapist (three times a week), morning class (four times a week), occupational therapy (once a week), afternoon school (four times a week) and, on Fridays, alternating sessions of behavioral and feeding therapy.

It means practicing the walk from the parking lot to the arena so Owen won’t fuss at an unfamiliar path before Saturday’s game, when fans will stuff the place to watch the Tigers play Drexel but also to learn about children like him.

Last season, Kristen and Pat Skerry created Autism Awareness Night, inviting local advocacy organizations to Towson’s home game against UNC Wilmington. This year, they’re thinking bigger. On Saturday, at least 82 Division I coaches — with names like Boeheim, Krzyzewski and Izzo — will wear puzzle-piece pins shaded royal blue to symbolize autism awareness.

“It’s become bigger than I thought it would be,” Pat said, holding Owen’s hands as they stepped onto the court. “But it’s on a much greater level than some basketball coaches asking each other to wear something on TV.”

A foreign concept

When friends ask about the severity of Owen’s condition, Pat and Kristen Skerry find it difficult to answer. The autism spectrum is employed abstractly to recognize the wide range of possible symptoms. It doesn’t slap a grade or number on the individual. The way autism manifests in Owen is different from others. It’s just easier to tell his story.

“It was at 18 months,” Kristen began. Pat was coaching at Providence in 2010, still climbing the ladder as an assistant. Owen had reached all the normal physical benchmarks like crawling and walking, but he wasn’t talking and wouldn’t make eye contact.

At first, autism was a foreign concept. Pat had seen the 1988 film “Rain Man,” but that was all he knew about the developmental disorder. Kristen had earned her master’s degree in counseling and education from William and Mary and once studied a child with Asperger syndrome — one particular disorder on the autism spectrum — but was surprised at how little that prepared her for the real thing.

Four years ago, Tom Herrion found himself in a similar situation. Now the men’s basketball coach at Marshall, Herrion struggled to understand the situation when his son, Robert, was determined to be autistic. Soon, he learned the numbers. Autism affects 1 in 88 children overall and 1 in 54 boys according to Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization.

“The statistics just cry and cry out,” said Herrion, who became close friends with Skerry when they were assistants at the College of Charleston.

So the two families started planning this year’s event. Skerry and Herrion split a list of coaches in half and texted each one to ask whether he would support the cause. Before long, Skerry had to place a call to Autism Speaks, which supplied the pins. So many people wanted to wear them. He needed more.

Trials, and rewards

Pat had stayed behind Sunday to watch film for Towson’s next game, so Kristen drove home — on the same route they always take. Owen rushed into the living room and opened the computer again, watching the jerky videos he shot at the gym as Kristen fixed lunch. Owen used to have food aversion, another common symptom of autism. Outbursts were common at the table, but with the help of a specialist he now tries new foods every week.

“Who knew there were feeding therapists?” Kristen said.

The Skerrys can afford Owen’s treatment, but many can’t. The average family spends $60,000 per year in care, and Maryland is one of 16 states that lacks health insurance coverage for autism. It is one of the many reasons Autism Awareness Night means so much to Skerry. He knows other families aren’t as fortunate.

The Skerrys have learned to celebrate the little things, things they took for granted with Ryan, Owen’s 8-year-old brother. A cry-free swim class earns a phone call to Daddy. New words get written in a journal. Recently, Owen approached another child on the playground, tapped his shoulder and said hello. It was big for Owen’s social growth.

Some autistic children avoid human contact, but Owen seeks it out. “Come over here and show them how to wrestle,” Kristen said from the living room sofa, and soon it became a family affair. Ryan softly pressed Owen’s head into the cushion and whacked him with a pillow because Owen loves the sensation of skin on fabric. Owen giggled, flashing his baby teeth, and his cherub cheeks turned a rosy red.

“A day in the life, I guess,” Kristen said, one boy nuzzled under each arm.

‘What’s the next step?’

Pat Skerry understands patience better than most coaches. Two seasons ago, his first at Towson, the Tigers went 1-31, the lone victory snapping an NCAA-record 41-game losing streak. But last season, Skerry engineered the nation’s biggest turnaround as the Tigers went 18-13, and this season they were favored to win the Colonial Athletic Association. His efforts to raise awareness of autism, he hopes, will follow a similar path.

“What’s the next step?” Skerry asked. “How do you keep the ball rolling?”

Skerry has already imagined what could happen with Autism Awareness Night in the future. Funds raised. Expansion to the lower levels of college basketball and to high schools so more coaches can spread the word. Getting people to realize that affected children are something other than “Rain Man.”

As for Owen, the ultimate goal remains integrating him into society. This month, he will turn 5. Next year, he will start kindergarten, an all-day program that will present new challenges. He has his colors and numbers and letters down cold, but Pat and Kristen wonder how he’ll behave in a classroom for an extended period of time.

“It’s a process,” Skerry said as he turned toward the television and went back to work.

 
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