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Marshall coach using basketball court to support autistic son

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Robert Herrion is a regular 8-year-old boy.

He likes Toy Story and Mickey Mouse. He cheers for the Boston Red Sox. He follows the weather and studies maps. He was running one 5K per month until winter ushered in the cold, and he plays soccer, flag football, tennis and basketball.

He also is a person with autism, and this Saturday he'll have college hoops coaches like Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino, Bob Huggins, John Calipari, Jim Boeheim and his father, Tom Herrion, in his corner.

More than 80 head coaches have rallied around the first ever Autism Awareness Day in college basketball, an idea hatched and spearheaded by Herrion, Marshall University's fourth-year coach, and Pat Skerry, the head coach at Towson University.

Skerry, like Herrion, has a son on the autism spectrum.

"We wanted to use the basketball stage to create a level of awareness of the epidemic of autism," Herrion said. "It is one of the fastest-growing behavioral disorders in the country."

Participating coaches will wear a blue pin in the shape of a puzzle piece, which is a symbol of the mystery and complexity of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

There are many unknowns when it comes to ASD, which the Herrion family has learned all too well in the six years since Robert received his diagnosis at the Autism Center of Pittsburgh.

Robert was born on Dec. 28, 2005, in Charleston, S.C., when Tom Herrion was the head coach at the College of Charleston. Leslie Herrion, Robert's mother, said pediatricians would have her mark checklists during routine appointments in order to evaluate his progress.

She became discouraged because she rarely found a box to checkmark.

"It was initially called delayed speech," Tom Herrion said. "When we got to Pittsburgh we grew more concerned because the progress was too slow, so we had him tested. They were able to diagnose him on the autism spectrum. It was a shot to the stomach, you know? When you get past the 'Why us? Why him?' you go to 'What do we have to do? Let's do it.' "

The six years since have been arduous but encouraging. At the age of 2, Robert had not uttered any version of "Mommy" or "Daddy." Tom Herrion said his son will "hum and make some funny noises, or he'll flap his hands when he gets really excited," but the day-to-day improvement is evident.

Robert, a second-grade student at Village of Barboursville Elementary School, is 80 to 90 percent mainstreamed in classes. He started at the school last January and Tom Herrion said the progress has been "unbelievable."

"He still struggles with his peers, the social interaction," the 46-year-old coach said of his only child. "When he is in a group of six or seven kids you won't see him having a lot of conversation with other children. You get him home, alone, 1-on-1, and sometimes you can't keep him quiet.

"He improves every day. That gives us hope."

Teresa Blake, principal at Village of Barboursville, said Robert "is a bright student with a bright future. He is well mannered, polite, behaves well and works very hard."

Robert receives 30 minutes of speech and occupational therapy per day. Otherwise he follows a routine day of school for a child his age.

"He doesn't think he is any different," Tom Herrion said. "That is what you want. Everybody embraces him. It is great to see those kids around him learn about what is going on. At first they might see some mannerisms that might make him seem different, but as they get around him more they get a better grip and he becomes beloved."

Robert also benefits from being the son of a Division I college basketball coach. He attends home games and travels with his mother for road games within driving distance. When the Thundering Herd players visit the Herrion household, the little curly-haired boy will play air hockey with 7-foot-2 senior Youssoupha Mbao. Robert and first-year graduate assistant Woody Taylor have a special handshake.

When Taylor entered the Henderson Center, where Marshall plays its home games, on Tuesday afternoon, Robert was seated in the front row. He spotted Taylor on the other side of the gym, hopped out of his seat and greeted the GA on the baseline. They slapped hands, pounded fists and then Robert jumped off the hardwood to bump shoulders with Taylor.

It is the type of moment that captures Robert's spirit, but also shows how he has developed relationships and blossomed socially.

"A lot of folks tell me they wouldn't have realized he is on the autism spectrum if they weren't told," Leslie Herrion said. "He has grown so much that he exhibits more typical behavior than autistic behavior."

There are still obstacles ahead, though. The Herrions know they're fortunate because of where Robert falls on the spectrum. He had access to therapies at 2 years old because of early intervention. Others face more significant challenges and more extreme versions of ASD, and the cost to support a person with the disorder can reach $60,000 annually.

Tom Herrion doesn't use the word "epidemic" loosely. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies 1 in 88 American children on the autism spectrum. An estimated 1 out of 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls are diagnosed with ASD, and the rate of prevalence increases by 10 to 17 percent each year.

"It is exciting that these coaches have come together to be advocates for this," Blake said. "Tom Herrion is using his platform to be a positive influence. Not all people in his position would have done that, but look at the attention this has generated because these coaches took the initiative to do something good."

The Herrions' objective to raise awareness includes the need for more research and education. There isn't a single cause or one type of autism, according to Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy organization. Research has linked autism spectrum disorder to genetic predispositions, environmental stresses and perhaps the immune system.

There are also concerns about what happens to young people with ASD when they no longer have the resources and aids within the school system. According to the Autism Society of Montana, the unemployment rate for adult persons with ASD is 81 percent.

"There is a lot of attention paid to early intervention for autism and with good reason," said Megan Pennington, a clinical instructor at the Autism Training Center at Marshall University. "Young children have an amazing propensity for learning. Those toddlers and preschoolers who receive empirically validated therapies, like applied behavior analysis, make life-changing progress."

But, Pennington said, it is critical to focus attention on adults on the spectrum, too.

"Children with autism grow up to be adults with autism," she said. "For a family with a young adult, it becomes clear very quickly that our society doesn't really have an answer for them after they graduate high school."

That is part of what troubles the Herrions and why they took the initiative, along with the Skerry family, to raise the level of awareness for autism spectrum disorder.

"Like any parent, your biggest concern is your child being able to live a normal life," Tom Herrion said. "The biggest fear is what the future holds."

Added Leslie Herrion: "We want him to have every opportunity and for him to figure out his gift and find his niche. We want him to have this opportunity to be exposed to everything and to decide what he wants to do so he can live his own dreams."

It'd be a shame if autism spectrum disorder provided Robert and others a roadblock to those ambitions, Pennington said.

"We need the community to reach back and say, 'Let's not just be aware of autism. Let's be inclusive.' " she said. "People with autism have amazing talents and insights.

"Until we, as a community, include them in our places of work, worship and leisure, we're missing out."

Contact sports editor Chuck McGill at chuck.mcgill@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-7949. Follow him on Twitter @chuckmcgill.


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