Northwestern University women’s basketball team not only has a strong commitment to the sport but holds an even greater passion to increase autism awareness.
When your coach and some players have personal ties to a disability like autism, it creates a special bond.
It was five years ago when head coach Joe McKeown and his family moved here from Washington DC.
“My son is on the Autism spectrum and we were looking for an opportunity for him,” McKeown said. “Joey is 19-years-old and when we moved here he was 13. He is brilliant. He’s an artist but he has obviously special and communicative needs.”
Coach McKeown’s daughter Meghan is a shooting guard on the team.
Once senior Meghan McKeown makes a shot, she knows those points contribute more than a winning number. She’s not just playing for herself, her team or to keep her scholarship. She plays for Joey.
“Growing up he was my best friend and we would do everything together,” Meghan McKeown said.
But the transitions weren’t always smooth for the McKeown family. Coach McKeown and his wife brought a case to Congress six years ago to fight for autism awareness.
The McKeown family felt that autism was so deep under the radar; the public eye didn’t have a grasp on understanding what the developmental disorder really entailed, so they fought the Supreme Court.
“People out there still don’t understand how important Congress can allocate in one day more than we can raise in years as parents trying to do different things,” McKeown said.
With silence from the government, Coach McKeown decided to take matters into his own hands. He knew he had to do what he did best, coach his basketball team and share his passion for raising autism awareness.
“Not only was it for my son Joey,” McKeown said. “This was for all the parents and families who felt like they couldn’t have a voice, and it was for those who simply didn’t know about autism.”
This was where Northwestern sports made their turnaround. The women’s basketball team changed their game plan, it wasn’t so much about winning anymore, it was deeper than a victory. Their mission now was to create autism awareness at every game they could. Whether it be wearing autism awareness pins or holding fundraisers throughout the season, the team made sure that every opportunity didn’t go untouched.
Northwestern women’s basketball team participates in two major events. Meghan McKeown takes her role as team captain further by getting her girls off the court and into a different field: Soldier Field.
“Every year we do a walk for Autism at Soldier Field where we’ve brought our team down with other football and basketball players to support that,” McKeown said.
Their awareness doesn’t stop there. The big event for the Northwestern Wildcats is their autism awareness game held at their home court, the Ryan-Welsh Arena. The fans come dressed in blue, in hopes to cover the whole arena with the main color that represents the Autism Spectrum Disorder.
On a game night like this one, the team is less concerned about the points and grabbing a victory.
“When we do our Autism awareness games, we open it up to all the families in the Chicagoland area to come in and spend a day with us to participate and try to create a better atmosphere for their kids,” McKeown said.
But the ties to autism don’t stop with the coach and his daughter; other teammates share the same experience.
Forward center Alex Cohen’s older brother Aaron is also autistic.
“Growing up with Aaron was a treat,” Cohen said. “He is nonverbal but we still are very close.”
Cohen, who is a junior, transferred here last year.
“It was really special coming to Northwestern and having the McKeown family here already starting that autism awareness game,” Cohen said. “They’re very big advocates for the autism community and so are we, so it kind of forms a special bond.”
The team takes their work off the court and into the school as well. Northwestern’s Autism Awareness Chapter raised the most money among colleges in the state of Illinois. Cohen is also the president of the Autism Speaks U Chapter and shared how excited she is about the expansion throughout their sports program and the school.
“In the 90s there was not a lot of information,” Cohen said. “I think the last five or six years there’s been an explosion of awareness and just funding through different states. It really helps when people try to spread the word. It’s very important for me for people to understand what autism is and to spread awareness.”