The numbers in the win column for the Towson men’s basketball team are decidedly more impressive this year than last year, even with nearly half the season still to go.
But the most important win the Tigers will rack up this season won’t be found in a victory ledger and won’t even take place on the court.
The work that assistant team manager Johnny Gillin does helping to run the shot clock or keeping stats or handing out water bottles during practice is a win for the Tiger program and an even bigger win for Johnny, who is autistic.
“It’s a very social thing for him to be part of being around coaches and players,” said Pam Gillin, Johnny’s mother. “It gives him a sense of pride that he can complete these tasks and a sense of belonging. It goes on and on what Johnny takes from this.”
As defined by the National Institutes of Health’s website, autism is a range of complex neurological differences. These differences can create social challenges for people on the autism spectrum as they contend with communication barriers and a society that oftentimes does not understand the unique way in which they interact with the world.
The NIH website identifies social interaction differences as the distinguishing feature of autism, which affects one in every 88 children and boys four times more often than girls.
Indeed, Pam Gillin said Johnny, the oldest of three Gillin children, wasn’t speaking at the age of 18 months.
“We knew there was something wrong because he had no language,” said Pam Gillin. Johnny, who is 20, has been speaking for quite some time, but doesn’t always have the easiest time interacting socially.
That’s what’s made Johnny’s time with the basketball team so important, says his mother. He now has connections with people on campus who know and like him, and can interact with him.
“I’ve been really impressed with the way the players have conducted themselves. They’re really, really nice guys,” said Pam Gillin. “Coach Skerry has been such a model for these guys.”
Indeed, Skerry has been quite welcoming of Johnny, calling him “brilliant.”
“Kids who have autism are extremely intelligent,” said Skerry. “They just have to learn things in a different way or express it differently.”
Skerry has personal experience in dealing with autism, as he and his wife, Kristen, are parents to two sons, Ryan, who is seven, and Owen, their three-year-old who is autistic.
Pat Skerry said Kristen Skerry noticed some difficulties with Owen when he was six months old. Owen attends the Kennedy Krieger Institute, and is making “great progress” in his speech.
Skerry wears a blue pin during each game to raise awareness about autism. In addition, the Tigers’ Feb. 4 home game against UNC-Wilmington will play host to a number of autism support groups, and the team will wear new blue shoes furnished by Under Armour, Skerry said.
Meanwhile, Johnny’s connection to the basketball team is not his only tie to the Towson campus. He also volunteers at the campus library and is a part-time student, compiling a 3.5 grade point average last semester, Pam Gillin said.
He was assigned mentors from Towson University’s Hussman Center for Adults with Autism. Under the program, students studying at the center were paired with Johnny, receiving course credit while assisting Johnny in studying and navigating the campus, as well as helping to create opportunities for him to interact socially.
Pam Gillin said all the help Johnny has received has helped him identify with a community.
“Here he is in class. Here he is with the basketball team,” said Pam Gillin. “All these things help him be more entrenched in the community. And for an individual with autism, that’s really important, having a community that can help support him, that can help bridge some of those deficits in communication that come up.”
It’s just nice that once he’s entrenched in the
community, the community can help support him.”
And that’s a win-win for everyone.
About the Hussman Center for Adults with Autism
The Hussman Center for Adults with Autism—one of the largest university-based centers focused on adult autism in the United States—is part of Towson University’s innovative Institute for Well-Being. As part of its mission, the center brings together Towson students and young adults on the autism spectrum to create a mutually rewarding learning environment. This involves social, educational and fitness programs that support adults with autism in developing the tools needed to lead meaningful lives as engaged members of their communities. Student mentors often go on to careers in the field of autism, working with individuals and advocating for accepting workplaces and communities.
Photos by Kanji Takeno