Towson coach Pat Skerry, like millions of men, is a husband and father. And, like a growing number of fathers in the United States, Skerry is the father of a child diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
On Monday when his Tigers host Kent State, it marks a historic occasion for the millions of families like his, and anyone connected to those families.
Skerry’s son, Owen, is among the 1-in-59 children born today who the Center for Disease Control estimates live on the autism spectrum. He credits his wife, Kristen, for recognizing their son not reaching certain milestones in his development, and thus beginning an early-intervention routine.
“Moms are like rock stars with these things,” he said.
When one talks about “autism awareness,” it's about arming parents with the knowledge to look for signs early in their child’s development, and seek out programs like Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. And few parents have a platform for spreading awareness like that which Skerry uses as a Division I basketball coach.
Collaborating with USF assistant coach Tom Herrion, Skerry began Coaches Powering Forward for Autism a half-decade ago.
“We came up with the idea, ‘Hey, we can get some people in our profession to wear the pin,’ some of the guys on national TV,” Skerry said. “It just got going from there.”
The pin refers to the blue puzzle piece lapel pin, the signature of Autism Speaks. Autism Speaks is an organization founded in 2005, focused on “advancing research into the causes and better treatment for autism spectrum disorders and related conditions both through direct funding and collaboration.”
In the mere 14 years since the organization’s launch, diagnoses of autism spectrum disorders have grown exponentially. The CDC reported in 2014 a 119 percent growth in diagnosed cases.
Expanding prevalence has led to a greater need for research and public awareness.
“It was a true, grassroots effort,” Skerry said. “It started with looking at TV schedules, calling coaches, asking them to wear the pins, and then buying the pins ourselves, mailing them out and coaches doing a good job wearing them for us like they said they would.”
On Feb. 1, 2014, more than 80 coaches across the nation wore the pins. The crew on ESPN’s College Gameday also sported them.
Each year since, the number of coaches and broadcasters involved has grown.
“If anything, I’m self-critical, so I look at how do we make it better every year?” Skerry said.
Towson will host Charleston in this season’s edition on Feb. 1, on the same day more than 400 coaches nationwide don the blue puzzle piece pins. In the meantime, the Tigers share the stage in a landmark game Nov. 11 against Kent State.
In their 97-58, season-opening win over Hiram, redshirt freshman center Kalin Bennett – the first student-athlete diagnosed on the autism spectrum to ever receive a Division I scholarship – scored his first career points on a silky smooth baby-hook shot in the paint.
Bennett was non-verbal until age 7. Through his family’s commitment to treatment – a process that can cost between $1.4 million to $2.4 million over a lifetime, per some estimates — he’s a trailblazer; a role model for millions of children and families.
That includes Skerry.
“As a parent [who] has a child on the spectrum, I’ll be trying to win the game, but really in awe of what Kalin’s accomplished,” he said.
“I’m a parent, and a coach. The impact that this has had on a lot of people, I’m not going to pretend like it doesn’t mean something to me. It does,” Kent State coach Rob Senderoff said in his postgame press conference following Bennett’s debut. "I was really happy that he was able to score his first basket.”
Bennett is no different than countless youth across the country who dream of one day playing at this high level. His comments after Tuesday’s game reflect that.
“A lot of kids dreamed of getting their first college bucket like that, so for it to go in for me, I was really happy,” he said.
Skerry said that Monday’s game is, of course, one he wants to win against “a terrific opponent.” But the coach understands magnitude of both his work using the platform of basketball, and Bennett’s unprecedented success.
This is truly a special occasion not just for awareness of autism as a condition, but a stage for the people with autism, and what they can accomplish with support and empathy.
“I hope we’ve been able to get people to have awareness – I know we have. I also hope at some time, it’s an Autism Acceptance Game,” Skerry said.