Owen Skerry slumped into the last row of golden seats and cupped his ears, a preemptive strike to block out the noise usually generated on game days. But on this Sunday, there was only silence inside an empty SECU Arena, and it threatened to disrupt the routine so important to the 4-year-old autistic child, whose father, Pat, coaches the Towson men’s basketball team.

“Can you tell me what’s wrong?” Owen’s mother, Kristen, asked as he rocked around and kicked a nearby chair. It turned out he wanted juice. Kristen pointed to Owen’s lap, at the computer application that helps improve his verbal skills. “Can you show me on here? Can you show me juice?” she asked.

Owen tapped the screen twice, and an automated voice piped through the speakers. “Candle juice,” it said. Owen giggled at the nonsense phrase. He had developed a keen sense of humor with his limited vocabulary, asking for popcorn and bagels during bath time. These small moments of growth were cherished by the family, but having an autistic child means the process is never over.

To the Skerrys, the process involves reviewing the day’s schedule before leaving the house in the morning so Owen won’t be surprised and throw a tantrum. It includes driving Owen to the speech therapist (three times a week), morning class (four times a week), occupational therapy (once a week), afternoon school (four times a week) and, on Fridays, alternating sessions of behavioral and feeding therapy.

It means practicing the walk from the parking lot to the arena so Owen won’t fuss at an unfamiliar path before Saturday’s game, when fans will stuff the place to watch the Tigers play Drexel but also to learn about children like him.

Last season, Kristen and Pat Skerry created Autism Awareness Night, inviting local advocacy organizations to Towson’s home game against UNC Wilmington. This year, they’re thinking bigger. On Saturday, at least 82 Division I coaches — with names like Boeheim, Krzyzewski and Izzo — will wear puzzle-piece pins shaded royal blue to symbolize autism awareness.

“It’s become bigger than I thought it would be,” Pat said, holding Owen’s hands as they stepped onto the court. “But it’s on a much greater level than some basketball coaches asking each other to wear something on TV.”

A foreign concept

When friends ask about the severity of Owen’s condition, Pat and Kristen Skerry find it difficult to answer. The autism spectrum is employed abstractly to recognize the wide range of possible symptoms. It doesn’t slap a grade or number on the individual. The way autism manifests in Owen is different from others. It’s just easier to tell his story.

“It was at 18 months,” Kristen began. Pat was coaching at Providence in 2010, still climbing the ladder as an assistant. Owen had reached all the normal physical benchmarks like crawling and walking, but he wasn’t talking and wouldn’t make eye contact.

At first, autism was a foreign concept. Pat had seen the 1988 film “Rain Man,” but that was all he knew about the developmental disorder. Kristen had earned her master’s degree in counseling and education from William and Mary and once studied a child with Asperger syndrome — one particular disorder on the autism spectrum — but was surprised at how little that prepared her for the real thing.

Four years ago, Tom Herrion found himself in a similar situation. Now the men’s basketball coach at Marshall, Herrion struggled to understand the situation when his son, Robert, was determined to be autistic. Soon, he learned the numbers. Autism affects 1 in 88 children overall and 1 in 54 boys according to Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization.

“The statistics just cry and cry out,” said Herrion, who became close friends with Skerry when they were assistants at the College of Charleston.

So the two families started planning this year’s event. Skerry and Herrion split a list of coaches in half and texted each one to ask whether he would support the cause. Before long, Skerry had to place a call to Autism Speaks, which supplied the pins. So many people wanted to wear them. He needed more.