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.