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How Do Sports and Autism Play the Right Roles Together?

Autism

From the hardwood of the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers to the asphalt racetracks of NASCAR with Richmond Raceway to the inspiring stories behind the world’s superlatives with Guinness World Records,  Keith Green has more than two decades of sports and entertainment-focused integrated marketing communications experience. 

In 2015, Keith expanded his PR, marketing, community relations, and sales experience to include the role of a non-profit founder and leader when he formed the  Autism MVP Foundation. The all-volunteer nonprofit, which was inspired by Keith’s son and the educators and therapists who have helped make a difference in his family’s life,  is dedicated to increasing the number and quality of autism-focused educators. 

Cyndi Greenglass: What is autism and why is awareness of the disorders so important to all of us?

Keith Green: Autism is a neurological disorder, and it can impair a person's ability to learn, focus, and interact socially with others. And the reason it's important for initiatives like autism awareness month is because autism itself is a very complex disorder. And you may have heard or be familiar with the term the autism spectrum. It is labeled as such because it is exactly what it says it is in terms of the symptoms being very diverse for different individuals. So, you might be able to have a conversation with somebody and sit next to them or interact with them and maybe you don't know that they have the disorder. On the other end of the spectrum, we may have somebody who might need lifelong care.  It really can vary widely. That's the challenge of it. Keith Green

CG:  Can you tell us about your own personal experience with autism and how that has defined maybe for you some of the decisions you've made in your career and in your life.

KG: I think it's important for people to really understand perhaps if they have a child or a relative or a neighbor's friend who might be on the spectrum, what could they look for and what they should be just sort of aware of when they're around somebody who has autism. Our son was diagnosed just shy of his third birthday.  We felt some things were not quite right. He would often flap his hands and things like that and pick at his hair and stuff that just we didn't feel was a normal trajectory for a child that age.

The first step for us was to take him to a neurologist and get an evaluation, but they don't give a diagnosis right away. They said, "Here's some things that we would recommend that you do." Between that initial visit and then about six months later when he was formally diagnosed, we were doing those different therapies for him and working with the government-funded early intervention program.

CG: Tell me how sports can help you learning more about the disorder and how you and some of your team members, athletes and organizations have been involved with autism. How does it help the families?

KG: Awareness is critical, and sports is such an integrated fabric of our society. As the disorder has become more prevalent in our society, not just here in the United States but around the world,  sports have served as a tremendous awareness vehicle for autism and for people to get involved with it in some way.

My introduction to autism awareness started a couple of years before my son was born. I was the PR director at the race track of Richmond, Virginia. One of the drivers has a daughter who was on the autism spectrum, and he approached myself and the track president at the time about wanting to do some sort of fundraiser for this autism-focused private school in town in Richmond.

I knew very little about autism at the time, because when I was younger, the autism diagnosis rate was one in 10,000 people. Now, around this time in 2004, that rate had jumped to one in 88. Last year, the CDC released information that one in 59 children born in the United States is on the autism spectrum. And where I live in New Jersey, that number is the highest rate in the country, and the county I live in has the highest diagnosis rate within New Jersey.  

Autism Speaks was formed around that time, which is just a giant organization that's doing great work nationwide, and other organizations started forming around research and education and just really helping people understand more about the disorder. And slowly that started to really integrate into sports, and it's been this tremendous awareness. I heard a report around the Master's and Ernie Els, who's a famous Golfer, has a son on the spectrum. He formed the foundation in honor of his son a number of years ago called  Els for AutismThe Red Bulls, which is a professional soccer team in New Jersey, built a sensory friendly suite for individuals and their families who are affected by autism to come in and enjoy the game in a very sensory friendly environment.  We need these type of things to drive awareness and understanding around the disorder.  

CG: And you're really helping contribute to this awareness and education with your Autism MVP Foundation. Can you share with us more about the foundation?

KG: It goes back to data.  There is an extremely bad math problem going on here, and what I mean by that is when you look at the data points. The diagnosis rate is one in 59. I believe that data is based on information that is now two years old from the CDC just because it takes them so long to accumulate the information and get it out. The next time that number comes out, probably another two or three years and will probably be based on 2018 or 2019 data, it's going to be, quote unquote worse than that.

If you compare the diagnosis rate of autism to the birth rate of the United States, that means more than 50,000 kids are born every year and eventually get that autism diagnosis that are entering our public school and social systems. There are simply not enough people who are either willing to be in these fields of special education or autism focus studies or the different therapies I mentioned, or they don't have access to the latest and greatest training. And that's why I started this foundation.  Our goal is to increase the number and quality of autism focused educators and therapists.

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