By Brian Hamilton
January 21, 2014

Pat Skerry Pat Skerry's experiences with his son, Owen, have inspired his autism outreach efforts. (Mitchell Layton/Getty)

On Monday night, Pat Skerry was babysitting. Which is to say he actually was parenting, though the difference can be blurred amusingly by the harried existence of a college basketball coach. Anyway, it was closing in on 7 p.m. when Skerry’s son, Owen, was working the iPad and in particular a specific app his mother installed to help him understand words and communicate.

Owen, nearing his fifth birthday, is autistic. His vocabulary and language skills are limited. His intuition is not. Which was how Owen calculated the time of day and tapped into his sense of routine before tapping into technology to issue a pronouncement to a somewhat preoccupied dad.

I want to take a bath, Pat Skerry was informed.

“He’s an unbelievable wizard on the iPad and some of these electronic gadgets,” Skerry, the Towson basketball coach, said in a phone conversation Tuesday morning. “He’s a heck of a lot smarter than I am with that stuff.”

If Skerry can’t quite use a touch-screen as adeptly, he can use his position and his platform to advance awareness of the condition that he says affects more children and families than people know. He and Marshall coach Tom Herrion – one of Skerry’s best friends in the profession and the father of an autistic child as well – have sent lapel pins to their peers nationwide in an effort to sponsor Autism Awareness Day in college basketball on Feb. 1.

The initial email Herrion and Skerry sent to coaches cited statistics that show 1 in 88 children and 1 in 54 boys are now affected by autism. And that treating autism can cost a family $60,000 per year, while not every state recognizes it as a condition to be covered through medical benefits. The pair sized up the nationally televised games that Saturday and bought blue pins from the Autism Speaks organization to distribute to 82 coaches who will pace the sidelines that day, in order to thrust these issues into wider consciousness.

“We’re fortunate, we had early detection -- we had many resources, therapies in and out of the classroom to help facilitate some of his needs,” Herrion said of his 8-year-old son, Robert. “All things considered, we’re probably on the fortunate side of the totality of autism. Nonetheless, anybody that has a child that has any sort of special needs or diagnoses, the biggest thing is you’re trying to allow your child to be normal. In today’s society, as a parent, that’s your biggest fear. You try to educate people so they understand.”

Skerry has had autism awareness events on Towson’s campus and both wear the blue lapel pin regularly. It has the desired effect, with referees and those working the scorer’s table asking questions about what it means. But there is that effect, and then there is the effect of near 100 percent agreement to participate from coaches on national television.

The list includes Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Kansas’ Bill Self, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, Arizona’s Sean Miller and goes on from there.

“We’ve got so many rock stars in this business, to have them wearing that pin, it does bring a lot of awareness,” Skerry said.

Both families were fortunate, in a sense, to have the autism detected early. But to give their children what they need, it is a painstaking daily grind. Four mornings a week, Owen Skerry attends the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. Three days a week, Skerry’s wife, Kristen, picks Owen up from there and takes him to speech therapy. Three other afternoons Owen spends at The Trellis School in Hunt Valley, Md., where he gets more one-on-one instruction at a place that specializes in services for children with autism and related communication disorders.

“This sucker and my wife are working a lot harder than I am,” Skerry said.

“It’s a challenging world out there. I don’t know if he’s ever going to be on a team, hopefully he can. Hopefully he can hold a job and get married. In some ways, I’m just the assistant. My wife is the CEO of this. It’s almost like we’re trying to build a program: It’s what you do on a daily basis. It’s process-driven. Her and my son, they roll up their sleeves every day and try to get better at what they’re doing each day.”

Likewise, Herrion’s wife, Leslie, got Robert into autism treatment programs early when she recognized even after barely a year that he was delayed in speech and communication. Now, he is mainstreamed, Herrion says, for about 80 to 90 percent of second-grade classwork.

His challenge is peer interaction. Robert doesn’t have much dialogue with fellow students. Sometimes he hums. Sometimes he has what Herrion call “hyperactive hands.” But creeping ever closer to Robert being treated nearly exactly like every other child is what brings the joy. “It’s our only child,” Herrion said. “It’s a hard thing to swallow when someone tells you your child has deficiencies or special needs. That’s hard. That hurts as a parent. Then our focus and our energy was totally channeled to giving him as much resources as we could to allow him to catch up or go his own speed. For us, as a family, he has made great strides.”

Two friends and coaching colleagues hope Feb. 1 accelerates the strides for everyone. A director of basketball operations emailed them just Monday, grateful for the attention they were bringing to the issue, as the staffer lived in a state in which autism is not covered by medical insurance.

In many ways, Owen Skerry is a typical soon-to-be 5-year-old. He has a great laugh, his father says. He loves to be tickled. He’s getting into “Monsters University.” He asks to go to the pool every Sunday when he wakes up and needs to be reminded that he has to wait until noon. And a basketball coach at a Division I university may be equipped to deal with all the rest better than others.

But it’s the others that Feb. 1 most critically is about.

“It’s probably someone you know and a couple people you know that has someone in their family that has a child with it,” Skerry said. “And then more, whether it’s on the national or federal level, it’s getting help for people. It’s a cost. I’m fortunate. There’s a lot of other people that maybe aren’t. Hopefully with more money and research – you’re talking about our children here – how do you help them? How do you help them figure it out?”

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