May 10, 2012
By: Jocelyn Vinoya Serranilla
Northwestern Athletic Communications
"Charity golf tournament, bake sale. Anything. We've done them all," says Head Coach Joe McKeown of his passion to raise autism awareness.
McKeown's son Joey, now 17-years-old, was diagnosed with autism in the early `90's when his condition became apparent at 18 months old. "He went from running around, to can't walk, isolated in a corner, staring at a wall," McKeown said.
"Very frustrating," McKeown says as he recalls his family's search for answers although he acknowledges that there is more information available now about autism than when Joey was first diagnosed. "The media is exploding, there's instant awareness, instant messaging, Facebook. What helped is that research and funding got a lot better, schools got a lot better."
But he says the fight continues to help families who don't know where to go and what to do.
"As a family, you have to search, and in our case, we searched all over the country to find people who knew more, who we felt could help, whether in Washington D.C., California or Boston. We went to conferences everywhere, trying to find doctors who had insights."
"We try as much as we can without going on a wild goose chase. We go to big conventions, seminars. There's always a magic potion. If you just try to chase that magic pill, you're going to be in Australia today, England tomorrow, Thursday in Toronto somewhere, like recruiting for college basketball."
And so McKeown's own autism campaign began from his Hall of Fame coaching years at George Washington University, and now at Northwestern University where he immediately teamed up with the Autism Speaks Chicago chapter. From 5K walks along Lake Shore Drive to hosting an Autism Awareness event around a home basketball game, McKeown and the women's basketball team are clutch when dishing assist to autism awareness campaigns.
Last year, McKeown and the Wildcats helped attract thousands of volunteers to Walk Now for Autism Speaks 5K walk that raised $1.7 million for autism research, says Mary Rios, events manager for Autism Speaks Chicago.
"Anytime you have a voice, you don't want to sit back and not say anything if you can help, if you feel you're doing things that will help grow awareness," says McKeown. He teamed up with families and organizations to raise awareness and money, lobbied Congress in Washington, D.C. "because I realized how quickly they could invest in research. The laws are in place but funding isn't," McKeown explains.
"He's wonderful," says Rios while reflecting on McKeown's involvement since moving to Evanston in 2008. Wonderful and even more so, contagious in his enthusiasm to raise funds for the cure, McKeown will once again lead his team in the 5K Chicago Walk Now for Autism Speaks on Saturday, May 12. The spring fundraiser, which attracts families and friends from all walks of life affected by autism, is expected to raise about $1.7 million in donations to match if not surpass the dollar amount raised last year to support autism research.
Since teaming up with the Autism Speaks Chicago chapter, McKeown, his family and his student-athletes have placed thousands of walkers in the annual 5K event in Soldier Field. About 25,000 supporters and donors are expected to participate in this year's Chicago walk, a sizeable increase from 12,000 to 15,000 participants in previous years. To accommodate more walkers this spring, Rios said organizers are expanding the route for the 5K walk to stretch from the perimeters of Soldier Field to go along Lake Shore Drive and loop to Monroe Street then back to Soldier Field.
Aside from the walk, the Wildcats have also spearheaded Autism Awareness Day at Welsh-Ryan Arena the past four years. Missouri came to Evanston in the inaugural Big Ten/Big XII Challenge on Dec. 5, 2010, providing a big stage for the annual Autism Awareness Day. Last season, the `Cats hosted then-No. 20 DePaul, drawing basketball fans from around the Chicagoland area. Both games were broadcast live by the Big Ten Network.
By hosting those games and participating in the Autism walk, McKeown hopes to give insight into what it's like to have an autistic child.
"That's the world we live in everyday," says McKeown. That world includes his son Joey's daily struggle with autism defined as a neurological condition which delays brain development resulting in social and speech impairment and repetitive patterns of behavior. It affects one in 88 children in the US and is more common in boys than girls.
"Joey is high functioning, his motor skills are good, has a strong vocabulary. He's able to comprehend conversations for the most part. Where he has trouble, he has raging issues from autism," says McKeown. "He will throw a fit. A lot of those kids do, they have no outlet to control their mind."
Joey McKeown has Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism spectrum disorder. He goes to school at New Trier High School where he attends special education classes, but is integrated in regular gym and art class.
"He's an artist," McKeown says as he proudly holds up Joey's latest drawings, including a world map. "He draws replicas of trophies. That's his favorite thing, Stanley Cup and NBA championship trophies."
"He's also a bracketologist, he makes brackets of NCAA teams," McKeown begins to laugh in his seat behind his desk as he continues to rattle off what Joey likes to draw. "He likes to draw roller coasters," then begins to grin, "Unfortunately, he likes to ride them. He rides them all day, so mom and dad are about to throw up by the end of the day," laughing at his memory of Joey and Laura a few years ago. "We were in Los Angeles for the NCAA Tournament. We got up there two days early to get used to the time zone." He recalls Joey "went to six amusement parks and rode roller coasters all day."
"Fortunately I had to go to shootaround that day, but my poor wife," McKeown then trails off with a wider grin and shakes his head.
Why autism awareness? "People become a little more compassionate," McKeown says of the effect awareness brings in basketball and in life. "To understand your surroundings is really important and we talk about it everyday in practice. The things that carry over from practice to the end of the game address awareness. That you are aware of time, situation and score, so you try to make the right decision."
"You're just sending out a statement that says, `We're involved in this and it's a really important piece of what we do," McKeown says.
Sounds like an autism awareness game plan.