It’s a special day when a child commits to attend his or her college of choice. And it was especially memorable for Melissa Crotty in 2014 when she learned that her son Liam wanted to spend four years at North Central College.
“The day I committed to play football [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,” joked Liam, a resident of Sandwich, IL.
Diagnosed with autism at age 6, Liam has defied the odds and is successfully completing his first year at North Central. He made the decision to not only attend college, but to play collegiate football and pursue his dream of becoming a sports broadcaster by getting involved at student-run WONC-FM 89.1.
He was already familiar with North Central and its football program because his older brother P.J. ‘16 has been part of the program for two years. Melissa told Liam, “I don’t expect you to go to North Central just because P.J. goes there, but I want you to at least apply because you already know about the school. A year ago he told us, ‘I want to make North Central my home for the next four years.’”
In football, Liam struggled at times with communicating with his coaches and teammates, finding it difficult to offer suggestions for plays or strategies. Being an athlete with a disability can be tough, especially explaining one’s situation and not knowing how they will react. Liam, a kicker, decided 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, but off the field you are brothers and supportive of one another.”
Athletics has always been a big part of Liam’s life. The broadcast communications major prides himself on his knowledge of sports and being able to recall names and statistics of famous players, which has helped him pursue his dream of working at ESPN.
He already has a good start at North Central, working at WONC and helping call play-by-play for sporting events. He was on staff for the nail-biting basketball games against Wheaton College, 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."
Several behaviorial clues as a youngster motivated Liam’s parents to have him tested at age 6. They reached out to Little Friends Center for Autism, a Naperville-based organization that services nearly 800 children and adults each year. The tests showed that he had high-functioning autism. “For the first time we walked out of a meeting knowing we had done the right thing and he was in the right place,” said Melissa.
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.
While he 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 strongest subject was math where his ability to remember small details helped him excel. He 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.
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. Executive Vice President of Little Friends’ Center for Autism, Patti Boheme,helps students with this transition and makes sure they find the right school.
“North Central is a great example of a quality school that is smaller so students with disabilities get more attention,” Boheme said. “Going to college or getting a job are huge accomplishments in the autism community. It’s something every parent and child dreams of.”
“He’s amazed us, he really has,” said Melissa. “He’s involved in a lot of things and 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.”
“It’s not too bad,” said Liam, referring to being diagnosed with autism. “Maybe there is a math problem that other kids can do but I solve it differently. And I still get the same answer.”