Several Towson University departments team up to host special workshop devoted to autism education
In 2013, Towson University men’s basketball coach Pat Skerry began wearing a blue puzzle-piece pin on his lapel in to raise awareness for autism because his son Owen is on the autism spectrum. Now in his seventh season at TU, Skerry and the Tigers play an annual “Autism Awareness” game every February.
What started as one game has since become a national movement called “Coaches Powering Forward for Autism.” And that one pin has grown to more than 3,900 worn by college basketball coaches and broadcasters in 2017.
Now Skerry and Towson University Athletics are helping to bring more autism awareness events to campus, partnering with the College of Liberal Arts and Disability Support Services to host Diversity Workshop: Focus on Autism on Monday, Feb. 5 at 3:30 p.m. in the West Village Commons Ballrooms.
“It just makes a lot of sense,” Skerry said. “We wanted to provide an inclusive event that’s catered to the outside public, our students and our student-athletes. It something we haven’t done before, but I’m really excited about it.”
The Diversity Workshop is just one of several events planned throughout the week. On Tuesday, Feb. 6, the men’s basketball team will host a special camp for participants from the Hussman Center for Adults with Autism. This is followed by the annual Autism Awareness game on Saturday, Feb. 10.
The idea for the workshop came when Skerry was having coffee with CLA Associate Dean Karen Eskow, Ph.D. The two connected through their shared interest in autism — Skerry through his son Owen and Eskow’s long-time research children with autism and their families.
After their meeting, Eskow worked with Susan Willemin, director of Disability Support Services, and Lisa Martinelli, a clinical associate professor and child life specialist, to get the ball rolling on the workshop. Previously the three had spent 10 years collaborating on a similar workshop titled “Disability Awareness Workshop.”
After getting the go-ahead from Terry Cooney, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, the three met with Skerry, and the initiative was underway.
“I think TU is lucky to have so many people who are passionate about autism and invest substantial time to create educational opportunities and other programs that are so meaningful,” Eskow said.
“Sometimes we use the word ‘collaboration’ without considering what's behind the scenes of collaborative initiatives,” she added. “Building solid relationships and working hard together to achieve common goals results in collaboration. The type of collaboration for these events and workshops involve people who care and are willing to work hard to create opportunities that enhance student learning.”
The workshop will feature speaker Anthony Ianni, who played basketball at Michigan State and was a member of the Spartans’ 2010 Final Four team. He now works with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and is one of the most sought after anti-bullying motivational speakers in the region.
At the age of four, Ianni was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which is on the autism spectrum. Doctors and specialists told Anthony's parents that he would barely graduate from high school, would never graduate from college, would never have a shot at being an athlete, and would likely live in a group institution with other people with autism for his adult life.
“Anthony will share his struggles and successes,” Eskow said. “His story will inspire others who have experienced similar challenges, but more importantly, he will share how important it is for each person to help address the problem of bullying and support friends, classmates and students across campus and in the community.”
Following Ianni's presentation, there will be a coaches' panel featuring Skerry and fellow Towson University coaches Diane Richardson (women's basketball) and Don Metil (volleyball), who all have kids on the autism spectrum.
Richardson, who is in her first season at Towson University, has two children on opposite ends of the autism spectrum. To have an opportunity to educate and share her experiences with the public has one of TU’s newest coaches excited.
“People are becoming more aware of autism, but I’ve lived that for the last 33 years with my daughter who had some difficulties,” Richardson said. “She's a special needs child. We've done a lot in the communities with trying to get awareness out. Not only does it help others to be able to understand kids who are autistic. It also lets the child be a part of the community where they are not shunned because people don't understand them.”
It started as a few pins and one game, but Skerry has seen autism awareness grow not only in college basketball but throughout the entire Towson University campus. With the workshops and camps happening throughout the week, he’s excited to see where this continues to grow in the future.
“This has been a true collaborative effort,” Skerry said. “When [Towson University] President [Kim] Schatzel came to campus, that’s one thing I was excited about. She makes sure the campus doesn’t operate in silos — that we work together as one campus. To get a chance to work with our professors and do something with them, it’s just really exciting.”