For Northwestern women’s basketball coach Joe McKeown, the decision to move to Evanston and accept the coaching position at Northwestern in 2008 was a no-brainer. But the reasons aren’t quite as simple as an outsider might think.
Before coming to Northwestern, McKeown was the head coach at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he was coming off of six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and back-to-back sweet 16 berths. Under his guidance, the Colonials had established themselves as one of the premier women’s college basketball teams year-in and year-out, and their trajectory was still upwards.
Meanwhile, Northwestern’s program was in a dark place. Across the past ten years, they had not won more than three games in conference play a single time, finishing tenth or worse in the then-11 team conference each season. Though he quickly turned things around — after going 7-25 his first year, the Wildcats have finished above .500 in seven of the last ten years under McKeown — the move was clearly not a wholly basketball-related one.
The coach had resided in Northern Virginia for 20 years, joined by his wife, his two daughters and his son Joey — who was diagnosed with autism at a young age.
“When he turned two, we knew there was something different,” he said. “He was misdiagnosed a lot back in the early 90s. There were a lot of different labels. Everybody had ADD. Everybody had epilepsy, but they couldn’t figure this out.”
It was Joey’s autism that ultimately played a major role in the decision to move. When the resources in the D.C. area were not up to par, McKeown hoped Chicago would provide a brighter future for his son.
However, McKeown did not take his family to Chicago until Joey was 13 years old, and he spent over a decade advocating for and battling on behalf of the autism community back on the east coast.
Living with and raising an individual with autism can be particularly demanding and has added challenges that most parents won’t face. The entire McKeown family became particularly accustomed to those challenges that autism, specifically, presents, such as violent outbursts or meltdowns, which consistently reminded them that their life was not always conventional.
Meghan McKeown, coach McKeown’s daughter and his former player at Northwestern, always had a close bond with her brother despite his autism. However, at a young age, she started to see through these daily challenges that Joey was different.
“I didn’t realize he was different or had autism until I was in fourth grade,” she said. “We were riding the bus, and he had always had meltdowns that we always called ‘spells.’ He had one on the bus, and I remember I was used to this but every kid around me was mortified by it. He was pulling my hair. The bus driver had to call my mom.”
“Everybody was freaking out on the bus,” McKeown continued to recount, “and that night, a girl on the bus called me and said, ‘My mom said I’m not allowed to play with you anymore because of your brother.’ That was the first time I realized that he was different from other kids.”
Happy #WorldAutismAwarenessDay! This is my brother, Joey, and he has autism. The smartest&kindest soul I know. It’s hard to put into words the challenges Joey has faced. So I encourage all to be kind to those who may be different. You have no idea what that may mean to them. pic.twitter.com/5awmPyKqEo— Meghan McKeown (@MeghanMcKeown_) April 2, 2019
Beyond the battles they faced in their day-to-day life, the McKeowns had to continually fight to improve Joey’s accommodations and services in order to help him work toward independence. One of the biggest battles back in D.C. was with the school system — specifically, Fairfax Country Schools.
“They just wanted to put you in a bubble with everyone else instead of trying to fight for inclusion, which is something that we, as parents, fought for a lot,” coach McKeown said. “We were really frustrated with Fairfax County Schools, the support and the lack thereof.”
In the 90s, there wasn’t nearly as much research surrounding autism as there is today. Families who were impacted fought hard for awareness and acceptance. They dedicated themselves to raising money for research through car washes and bake sales. They flew doctors in from other parts of the country. They had many unanswered questions but knew that without legislative support, it would be difficult to make progress.
“You could look across the river and see the Capitol or see the White House,” McKeown said. “You’re in the most powerful region in the country as far as healthcare and all the lobbying groups. Everything’s based in Washington. The fact that they couldn’t do anything 10 minutes outside the boundaries of the capital was sad — still is.”
Ultimately, when the opportunity presented itself and the move occurred, McKeown had to reinvent the support group he had built so strongly in Washington. They hoped the school system would present Joey with new and improved opportunities, so he could live his life to the fullest and reach his potential.
After finishing junior high, Joey was enrolled in a special needs program at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, which ultimately offered him the exact accommodations he needed.
“In the autistic world, change is very hard,” McKeown said. “As hard as that time was, it was also a good time for him. People were supportive. He had a lot of violent outbreaks there and raging issues, but they were committed to him. I think they really cared about him.”
After being asked to leave numerous schools before due to his violent outbreaks, the faculty at New Trier invested in Joey and enabled him to graduate with a high school diploma. But one of the greatest challenges for individuals with autism and their families is determining what life after high school graduation entails, and it was no different for the McKeowns.
Joey ultimately moved to the Cleveland area to attend a special school called Bellefaire. According to McKeown, it provided him with a great set of tools and allowed him to grow into a more independent young adult. He had a job and was living up to his potential. At the age of 22, though, he aged out of the program, which presented a different challenge for the McKeown family.
“That’s the next step that, as parents, we’re not prepared for in this country,” McKeown said. “Thing with all the legislation is when you turn 22, they throw you on the street, and you start over again. It’s a scary thing for a young adult and families.”
Through that period, Joey, with the help of his family and support system, was able to start to find his independence. Now at age 25, he lives right outside Cleveland in a home with another autistic man. His motor skills and speaking ability are especially strong, which allows him to work a job at a supermarket.
While Joey has expanded into his independence, many individuals with autism and their families are still fighting for it. McKeown’s unique experience prompted an initiative at Northwestern to recognize the autism community and provide a space for acceptance in the context of sports.
Northwestern women’s basketball organizes an annual Autism Awareness Day for local families — and families traveling from Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan — to come together and recognize acceptance. This year, the event will be held Sunday afternoon during Northwestern’s matchup against DePaul.
“It was to give families the chance to see a college basketball game,” he said. “It really wasn’t any more than that. We just wanted it to be a fun day to give them the chance to get away and just enjoy the day, knowing that we’re trying to grow awareness in the community and give families, teachers and educators, who work tirelessly, a day to come here and have fun.”
The community response has been overwhelmingly positive. McKeown’s goal of a day of simple fun is achieved year after year. Since the event has started, the team has become more active in the community as well, participating in the Chicago Walk For Autism to support its coach and loved ones.
“I think it’s awesome that we can look beyond basketball and play for something like that,” sophomore guard Lauryn Satterwhite said. “I’m really excited that I can use this platform to inspire people and play for them. I think it’s really important and a cool opportunity.”
The platform athletes and coaches have is unlike anything else, as Meghan McKeown and Satterwhite both noted. “It’s really unique, especially in college athletics,” the younger McKeown said. “People listen to what they say. To use that platform and spread a message that hopefully resonates with a group of people or can help them just a little bit, it’s really special that Northwestern supports such an important cause like that.”
While Northwestern has made active efforts to advocate for autism acceptance, there is still plenty of work that can be done in the community.
There is more money, research and opportunity, and Coach McKeown acknowledges how far the community has come since his time in D.C. in the 90s, but acceptance is not nearly where it needs to be. He, alongside many other advocates, hope people can see the amazing minds that these young individuals have and presume competence in them.
“It’s amazing their ability to learn, and people don’t realize that,” he said. “They all learn differently. Don’t generalize your opinion of them. I see some amazing young kids out there. We’re a long way off from figuring this out. Sometimes we just want to label people. These kids are really smart. They’re fun. They just need opportunities.”
However, achieving this level of universal acceptance is only possible with motivated and inspiring advocates like Coach McKeown who stand up for those with autism to help spark change.
“My dad is truly the most amazing man I know,” his daughter said. “He was at GW for 19 years...and left it all behind to come to Northwestern to take on [at the time] one of the worst programs in all of college basketball. Everyone thought he was nuts to do it, but he did it because the services for children and young people with autism were better in Chicago than were available to us in D.C.”
“He took his career goals and changed them just to move my family here for my brother,” she continued. “He’s one of the winningest women’s basketball coaches of all time, and to have someone who’s so successful yet doesn’t let that get in the way of doing the right thing — especially for his family — I think, especially at this day and age, that’s so hard to find. My dad is the highest example of character I can think of.”
While Joey is well on his way to finding his independence, the McKeown family hopes for his continued growth and acceptance in society, so he can achieve all his goals in spite of any challenges he may face. They will continue to advocate for Joey and for other young people with autism to inspire the acceptance that these brilliant young minds deserve.
“Like any parent, I just want him to have a full life,” McKeown said. “I want him to have a sense of freedom and independence and to have the chance to do the things he dreams about doing.”