Autism awareness pins have added meaning for two college basketball coaches

This Autism Speaks pin will be on the lapels and shirts of college basketball coaches across the country this weekend.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

This weekend, on the lapels of more than 250 college basketball coaches around the country, you’ll notice a pin. The pin is blue and in the shape of a puzzle piece. It is intended to raise awareness as well as money for Autism Speaks, the world’s leading science and advocacy organization for autism.

For most coaches, it’s a nice little thing to be able to do without all that much effort: Wear a pin, raise some money, speak about the importance of autism awareness, hope it gets a few people talking about America’s fastest-growing behavioral disorder, do something good for the world. On to the next thing.

But for Pat Skerry, the head coach at Towson University in Maryland, and Tom Herrion, an assistant at Georgia Tech and former head coach at College of Charleston and Marshall, that little pin is about much more.

It’s about the life they live every day having a son with autism.

Herrion’s only child, Robert, seemed developmentally behind with his speech as a toddler. At first, doctors thought he just had delayed development. Nothing to worry about. But Herrion and his wife weren’t comfortable with that diagnosis. Robert, who is 10 now, later was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum as a toddler, and that’s a key point Herrion wants people to know: Early intervention is a key.

Georgia Tech assistant Tom Herrion, a former head coach at Marshall and College of Charleston, knows from experience with his own son that early diagnosis for autism is important.

“None of us are prepared for that,” Herrion said. “When you’re told your son has a disorder or in some other instances a disease or a handicap of some sort, so much goes through your mind. All of us want our children to live the proverbial perfect life. You get that news, and it’s a punch to the gut. But then you regroup and put another game plan in motion.”

Skerry can remember when his younger son, Owen, was 18 months old. Just like Herrion, Skerry and his wife knew things were developmentally behind with their son. Skerry thought it was his hearing. They needed to get his ears checked. His wife pushed the family to look deeper.

“It was a sense of relief for my wife, like she expected it, and then we had to get after it and get early intervention,” Skerry said.

And this is the point of this weekend’s college basketball-wide push to get people talking about autism, and why coaches such as Villanova’s Jay Wright, Arizona’s Sean Miller, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim will be sporting the Autism Speaks pin: to encourage people to think about and research the behavioral disorder that affects an astounding one in 68 children.

Because one of the keys in helping children with autism is to diagnose it as early as possible. And early diagnosis can help ease the symptoms of a developmental disorder with no cure and no known cause.

Towson coach Pat Skerry’s son Owen was diagnosed with autism before age 2.

Now Owen is 7 years old with a huge smile and a passion for collecting hundreds of DVDs. “That DVD aisle at Target is like Disneyland for him,” Skerry said. His tantrums have abated. Now he can sit still in a classroom for 30 minutes at a time. Speech therapy in Baltimore County schools has helped him become more talkative. Sticking to a routine is vitally important to him.

“He’s one of the most energetic, enthusiastic young men,” Skerry said of his son. “He has some weaknesses and deficiencies. He has some social inhibitions. He’s not a great communicator with kids his own age. If you watched him you’d wonder, is there something wrong with him?”

The relationship between Skerry and Herrion is unique in all of college hoops. The two knew each other growing up in Massachusetts. They were in college at the same time — Herrion at Merrimack and Skerry at Tufts. They coach at summer basketball camps together. When Herrion got the College of Charleston job, he hired Skerry as his assistant. They are best of friends, and so are their wives. And when each of their families got the news of a child having autism, they used each other as shoulders to lean on.

“We talk about it all the time,” Skerry said. “To have a friend in the business that shares something outside of basketball, you don’t have to explain every little thing you’re dealing with.”

Being accepting of people with autism is really, really important. It’s not a team we necessarily asked to be on, but we’re on the team now.

Towson coach Pat Skerry

And so this is the third year the two coaches have teamed up for the event with Autism Speaks. It’s about awareness for autism but also awareness for the struggles of families who have autistic children. Some health insurance plans don’t pay for autism treatment. Getting good services can cost a family some $60,000 a year.

And so little blue pins on the lapels of a couple hundred suits of college basketball coaches this weekend may not seem like much to you. But it’s huge for these two coaches.

“It’s an awareness game, but what I hope we can really stir up as the awareness grows is that it becomes an acceptance game,” Skerry said. “Autism is here. There’s many people on the spectrum that provide great things in society. Being accepting of people with autism is really, really important. It’s not a team we necessarily asked to be on, but we’re on the team now.”

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.