If you were to watch freshman football player Liam Crotty on the field, in the classroom, or working with the campus radio station, it would be hard to believe that he is living with a disability.
The vibrant, energetic, and highly motivated Sandwich, Ill., native has not let autism set limits or affect his goals, both on and off the field.
“Going into his second year of preschool, (his teachers) had some concerns,” said Liam’s mother, Melissa. “He was always verbal, and he never had any major behavioral problems, but he liked to play in the corner by himself, and stared off to the side a little bit.”
At age 6, the Crottys made the decision to have Liam tested for a behavioral disorder. They reached out to Little Friends, an organization that services nearly 800 children and adults each year, to go through a thorough screening and help them find the answers they were looking for.
The tests showed that Liam had high-functioning autism, one of many forms of the disease that affect children and adults.
One in 68 children will be diagnosed with autism at some point during their childhood, a statistic that has increased nearly 17 percent in the last decade. Nearly 3 million people are living with autism in the United States and worldwide that number has reached nearly 10 million.
“We decided to go to Little Friends and they were a lifesaver,” said Mrs. Crotty. “They performed a very long, very specific evaluation, and for the first time we walked out of a meeting knowing we had done the right thing and he was in the right place.”
“It’s not too bad,” said Crotty, referring to being diagnosed with autism. “Maybe there is a math problem that other kids can do but I kind of solve it differently. But I still get the same answer.”
While he may have needed to adjust his study habits, Liam did well in school, keeping up with his classmates and staying at or above grade level in most subjects. His strong subject was math where his ability to remember small details helped him excel.
Some kids, however, are not as successful as Liam in the classroom and need extra assistance. Executive vice president of Little Friends, Patti Boheme, is one of the leaders in the development of several service models and techniques to help children and adults who are living with autism.
“Probably one of the most important things we do is getting children diagnosed early,” said Boheme. “It’s really important for a child to get diagnosed early enough so that we can get treatment in place so they can make progress. The earlier the diagnosis the better the chance that child has.”
Liam attended programs at Little Friends until his freshman year of high school, learning skills that would help him not just in school but also in other social situations.
“In addition to study habits, we work with children on their social skills,” said Boheme. “Some individuals miss social cues — stand too close, talk to loud — or may not pick up on slang, so we really need to work with them about the social rules and what they mean and how to improve their social skills because they are impaired in that area.”
The transition from high school to college can be a challenge for many students with autism, between the academic load and the variety of social situations. Boheme helps a lot of patients with this transition and makes sure they find the school that is right for them.
“One of the most important things for a student going to college is to get a letter from their doctor about their disability so that hook up with the disability department at the college,” said Boheme. “Most colleges offer some sort of academic support group that helps with study and organization skills.”
“Sometimes it’s better that kids going away to college get their own room and to really pick a small school,” she added. “North Central is a great example of a quality school that is smaller so that students with disabilities can get more individual attention from the professors and school.”
Liam was one of the fortunate kids, making the decision to not only attend college, but to also play collegiate football.
“The day I committed to play (at North Central), my mom made a post about how they didn’t think I would finish high school let alone go to college. You know moms on Facebook: they post those things,” he joked.
North Central seemed to be a good fit for Liam as his older brother P.J. (’16) was already familiar with campus and the football program.
“I told him, ‘I don’t expect you to go to North Central just because P.J. goes there,'” said Mrs. Crotty, “but I want you to at least apply because you already know about the school. A year ago, at the end of March, he told us, ‘I want to make North Central my home for the next four years.’”
On the football field, Liam struggled at times with communicating with his coaches and teammates, finding it difficult to offer suggestions for plays or strategies because he was not sure what his coaches or teammates would think.
“I had a few ideas for plays and stuff in high school, but I never really ran it by my coach or asked my teammates about them,” he said. “I didn’t know how I would react to their reaction, good or bad, so I never asked them.”
Being an athlete with a disability can be tough, especially explaining one’s situation to teammates and coaches and not knowing how they will react.
“When he was younger, he had a sensory processing delay, which he still has some of today,” said Mrs. Crotty. “Every teacher and coach that he’s had, we’ve made a point to tell them that if you’re talking to him and he’s not looking at you, he’s not ignoring you, he’s just literally taking in everything you say.”
Liam decided that during a team meeting at the start of the season would be the right time to tell his coaches and teammates that he had autism.
“I felt comfortable telling them,” he said. “The environment for teammates here is so different than high school; in high school, there were kids who didn’t like each other. Here, everyone loves and supports everybody. You compete on the field and you hate each other sometimes, but off the field, you are brothers and supportive of one another.”
Sports have always been a big part of Liam’s life, both playing on the field and following other teams. The broadcast communications major prides himself on his knowledge of sports and being able to recall names and statistics of famous players, something that has really helped him along the way in pursuing his dream at ESPN.
“ESPN has always been a dream of mine,” he added. “My parents always tell me ‘don’t make us keep you close to home,’ but I would go to Connecticut if I had to. It’s what I want to do.”
He already has a good start at North Central, working with the radio station and calling play by plays for the games. He was on staff for the nail-biting Wheaton games for men’s and women’s basketball, a rivalry that goes way back in the history books.
“It was so much fun,” he said, thinking back to his first radio experience. “That was my first game and it was so exciting!”
“He simply does not allow the autism to define him,” said John Madormo, assistant professor of broadcast communication and general manager of WONC. “He researches the teams thoroughly before each game and is fully prepared for each play-by-play or color commentary opportunity. He has participated in broadcasts of women’s basketball, men’s baseball and women’s softball. Liam is, without a doubt, one of the most enthusiastic members of our sports teams.”
Liam has started his college career off strong and with his first year almost under his belt, Liam and his family have been able to see where he has come from and where he is headed.
Boheme is always impressed when students like Liam are able to succeed in both school and in life, despite living with autism.
“Going to college or getting a job are huge accomplishments in the autism community,” said Boheme. “It’s something every parent and child dreams of that one day it’s something they can obtain. And not everyone does, but that doesn’t mean they are failure.”
“You need to always assume that person can be successful, and that’s when the results will surprise you,” she added.
And for Liam’s parents, the results have left them in awe.
“He’s amazed us, he really has,” said Mrs. Crotty. “He’s involved in a lot of things and always has been from day one. My husband and I used to think that if he did go to college one of us might have to move with him, but he’s all on his own at North Central and we couldn’t be happier for him.”
*Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 6, 2015.