Autism speaks to Pat Skerry

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Your son has autism.

The words echoed around the white-walled doctor’s office, settling in as a deafening ring in Pat Skerry’s ears and a pounding throb in his chest. Then there was a crack and the earth opened up below Skerry, swallowing him whole.

“I literally thought I was having a heart attack; I felt like I couldn’t breathe,” says Skerry, now in his fourth year as the head coach of Towson University’s men’s basketball team, of the day back in 2010, when he and his wife Kristen learned their son Owen was autistic.

“I was shocked, I was terrified, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know anything about autism. You start to wonder, ‘what is going to happen to my son? What kind of life is he going to lead?’”

More than four years later, Skerry’s heartbeat still quickens when he thinks back to that day in that Pittsburgh doctor’s office, but he is now forever grateful for exactly who Owen is.

“I still worry about how the world will treat him, but I love him with all my heart for exactly who he is, and having him as my son he has made me a million times better as a person,” says Skerry. “He makes me a better parent, a better teacher, a better coach and just a better human being,” he continues. “Owen has taught me that everyone learns differently, that everyone has different struggles, but that all these differences enhance your life in ways I can’t even describe.”

But it wasn’t an easy road to get here.

1 in 68

Autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are a group of complex disorders pertaining to brain development, most commonly characterized by difficulties with social interactions, understanding social cues like body language and facial expressions, and communication. Repetitive behaviors and singular fixations can also be characteristics.

Fifty years ago, children diagnosed with autism were sent to sanitariums, shuttered away from the outside world, and treated with archaic methods like shock therapy. Twenty years ago, they were banished to group homes, and condemned to spend their lives living on the margins of society. A decade ago, they were ostracized, ridiculed and misunderstood in mainstream school systems.

While there remains no known cure for autism, today, through early intervention, therapy, and inclusion in the general student body, those diagnosed with autism are living more independent and successful lives than ever before.

But a great deal more research remains.

According to the advocacy group Autism Speaks, an organization that that sponsors research, promotes awareness and conducts outreach for those afflicted with autism and their families, 1 in 64 children and 1 in 42 boys has an ASD, a tenfold increase from 40 years ago.

Skerry didn’t know any of this before Owen, the younger of his two sons, was diagnosed. In fact, according to Skerry, his knowledge of autism went no further than the mathematical wizard and “idiot savant” portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 drama Rain Man.

“My knowledge was literally zero,” says Skerry.

That all changed when Owen started to fail to meet benchmarks as he approached the age of two, the average age when children are diagnosed.

“My wife just said he wasn’t meeting some bench marks,” explains Skerry. “He crawled at the normal age, walked at the normal age, but then he wasn’t talking, wasn’t making eye contact. I thought it was a little bit premature, but she was right – always trust a mother’s instinct.”

Skerry considers himself “incredibly lucky” after the diagnosis for three reasons – the three pillars in his life: His wife, his sons and his father.

“She is by far the head and champion of our family,” says Skerry of Kristen diving head first into the world of autism advocacy on behalf of their son, adding, “she is a machine, honestly.”

Skerry didn’t know it, but the life lessons bestowed upon him as a child from his own father would be integral in preparing him to help Owen overcome the obstacles standing in his way.

Lessons from his father

Pat Skerry was born and raised in Medford, Massachusetts, a hockey-crazed, blue-collar city five miles northwest of downtown Boston, but one that can often feel a world away. Bordered by the Mystic River, a slow, sludge-filled waterway polluted by centuries of industrial waste, as well as hard scrabble towns like Charlestown (formerly regarded as the bank robbery capital of the country), Somerville (where notorious gangster Whitey Bulger cut his teeth) and Everett.

Skerry’s father, David – known as “Big Dave” to family, friends and the neighborhood as a whole – was a lawyer by trade but a hockey player at heart. Long before Skerry every laced up sneakers and took to the hardwood, Big Dave had him in skates, working on his slap shot at all hours of the day.

“I was fortunate enough I had a dad who was a lawyer,” says Skerry. “He was a hockey-football guy, I grew up playing hockey. “

But by the time he was in middle school, basketball had a firm grip on Skerry’s heart and wouldn’t let go. And despite not knowing the first thing about the sport, Big Dave supported his son in being his own man.

“One thing I’ll always give him credit for was when I said I didn’t want to play hockey anymore, I wanted to pursue basketball, he didn’t know anything about basketball but he supported me,” says Skerry.

The lesson imparted by big Big Dave on his son – that he loved him for exactly who he was – was one that remains with Skerry to this day. And according to the 45-year old coach, it helped prepare him to be the best father he could to both Owen, and his older son, 9-year-old Ryan.

“What you learn is, and I would tell this to any parent, is be excited and be thrilled about who and whatever your child is,” says Skerry, whose hopes and dreams for both of his sons lie not on the hardwood, or any athletic playing field, but in simply seeing them find their own passions and places in the world.

“I don’t push them in any direction. I’ll support them in anything they develop a passion for,” says Skerry. “I don’t say ‘I want my son to be a pro basketball player, or a pro basketball coach,” or even that I want to go out and play catch in the back yard, that may or may not happen. But I’m excited for what he’s doing in school.”

According to Skerry, Owen still struggles with verbal communication, but his vocabulary is growing by leaps and bounds every day, and Skerry is just as thrilled having his youngest son teach him something new on the iPad, or talking to Ryan about his favorite video game, than he would be if they were swishing 3-pointers and mastering the motion offense.

“My youngest son, he’s extremely crafty on the iPad and the iPhone,” says Skerry, noticeable pride in his voice. “My other son, he likes Minecraft — I don’t know much about it, but I really enjoy when he tells me about it and shows me stuff.”

Speaking for autism

The Skerrys will be the first to tell you that they are incredibly fortunate. According to Autism Speaks, the average family of a child with an ASD spends $60,000 a year for treatment and care – a sum that grows exponentially in a state like Maryland, one of 16 states in the country where health insurance does not cover autism or autism spectrum disorders.

“We’re extremely, extremely lucky that I had the job that I have where we can afford to get Owen the services he needs without going bankrupt,” says Skerry, “And we’re really fortunate in that we have a lot of really good organizations in the area that work with autism.”

Which is why Skerry decided to use the platform his position at Towson provided him to try and make a difference.

Two seasons ago, the Skerrys came up with the idea to hold an autism awareness night when Towson faced off against UNC Wilmington, inviting individuals with ASDs and their families from around campus and the larger community to attend the game, where there was an information booth dispensing facts on the disorder. Under Armour donated blue shoes – the color for autism awareness – to the Tigers.

It was a great night, according to Skerry, but afterwards, the coach felt like there had to be more he could do – a lot more. So he immediately picked up the phone and dialed up his long-time friend Tom Herrion, at the time the head coach of Marshall and now an assistant at Georgia Tech.

“We called Tom Herrion, who’s one of my closest friends in coaching. He has a son Robert who is autistic. And ‘I was like how can we get together and try to do more to raise awareness?’” he says. “We started brainstorming and we looked up that there was a Saturday where there were 41 games on national TV between ESPN, ESPN2, U, CBS, Fox, NBC. So we got thinking, and we we’re like ‘lets see if we can get some [autism awareness] pins and get the coaches to start wearing them.’”

Last year, through an entirely word of mouth grass roots campaign, Skerry and Herrion were able to get 82 coaches and broadcasters to wear pins. A year later, Skerry and Herrion teamed up with Autism Speaks on the first weekend in February, where roughly 225 coaches Division I coaches, among them every coach in the ACC coach, along with the likes of Kentucky’s John Calipari, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Kansas’ Bill Self, sported the blue puzzle piece pin representation of Autism Speaks.

While there were many more prominent games in the national landscape, none were more touching or personal than Towson’s 63-61 loss to James Madison, which featured 14 different organizations that support autism awareness and research, hundreds of children and adults with autism in the stands, and a post-game musical performance by a high school students with autism.

“We had a great game here, other than the result,” says Skerry, whose team wore blue uniforms donated by Under Armour for the second year in a row.

“Now we need to figure out how to make it bigger and better to raise awareness for a cause that really needs it,” says Skerry, who along with Herrion co-founded Coaches Powering Forward For Autism, a program provides basketball coaches, their teams, schools and community supporters with an even greater opportunity to help increase awareness, fundraise and advocate for the needs of families and individuals affected by autism.

Always moving forward

It’s been a tough year for the Tigers. One season removed from a 25-11 record – Skerry’s best at the helm – Towson young roster currently sits at 12-18 overall and 5-12 in CAA play, good for a tie for eighth place.

But Owen’s struggles always put things in perspective for his father.

“It can get hard at any moment of any day, if you start thinking, or worrying, or getting anxiety by thinking ahead five, 10, 15 years and wondering where he’s going to end up,” says Skerry. “But you just try to deal with it on a daily basis and try to make progress every day.”

It’s a lesson he tries to impart on his team, who all know Owen well and are frequent visitors to the Skerry household.

“I hope in some ways I’ve been able to help our student athletes become more understanding and accepting of what autism is,” he says. “It’s great having them over to the house for different activities so they get to know Owen and I think they become a little bit more worldly from it.”

Skerry is hoping that the Tigers can turn the corner and make some noise in the CAA Tournament this season, and is also hopeful that he can help continue to shine a brighter light on autism, which is the fastest growing childhood diagnosis in the United States, yet receives only approximately 0.55 percent of the total funding allocated to treat and research diseases by the National Institutes of Health Funds Allocation.

“It’s definitely what drives me, to try to make a small difference in any way that I can to help kids like Owen have a better life,” he says.

And for Skerry, whether its his team on the court or society as a whole, the most important thing is to keep moving forward.

“I think as a society evolves, we start to figure out, if and when we become more understanding of everyone, we can become a lot more productive in how we operate as a society.”