by Tom Pedulla –
When the Irvington girls’ basketball team hosts the annual Autism Classic, it attaches a smiling face to the cause.
Jeff Dyer, who lacks verbal skills due to autism, is nonetheless as engaged as any fan at the games and is a beloved member of the community. His father, Bill, is a former football coach at the school. His mother, Carol, oversaw the junior varsity for many years for legendary coach Gina Maher.
“Many of the people in the gym have played football for my dad or hoops for my mom. They all know Jeff and he knows them all,” said Alison Dyer, Jeff’s sister. “All of these Irvington people will see him and they love him, and he loves them back.”
Eight teams participated this year, representing Westchester and Rockland. Visiting teams donated baked goods, sports beverages and water to the concession stands, where they are sold by Irvington players and their parents to raise funds. Candlelight Inn of Scarsdale provided T-shirts. DJ Johnny G of Ossining volunteered his time in providing entertainment.
“It’s a wonderful community feeling, getting together for a cause,” Maher said. “I think everybody is touched by autism. I think everybody knows somebody who is either autistic or on the spectrum or has sensory issues. It’s widespread, certainly more prevalent than it has ever been, and these people need help.”
Eva Gilbert, a senior, said the existence of the Autism Classic was a major factor in her wanting to play basketball at Irvington.
“It’s definitely a huge part of the program,” she said. “The most important aspect of the program and the things we value are community, unity, inclusion and spirit. This tournament just adds to that.”
Money raised goes to organizations that assist those with autism such as Surfer’s Healing. Surfing has been found to be therapeutic for those who have the disease. Surfer’s Healing travels both coasts to provide therapy.
Jeff Dyer, 33, is among those who have benefited from the program. He was diagnosed at two. He has spent his life learning to adjust.
“Jeff is not verbal, but he is so incredibly communicative,” Alison said. “He writes. He kind of has his own sign language. He is incredibly creative and also very patient when it comes to getting his point across. He has a lot of interests. But being non-verbal, that is incredibly hard.”
Jeff lives at a group home in nearby Chestnut Ridge to better assist his needs. His condition can be difficult to understand for those not touched by autism. The sound of a passing fire truck causes him great distress. The buzzer at basketball games used to drive him from the gym before he adjusted. His speech is limited to very few words — and yet he is masterful with a computer.
“He knows more about technology,” Alison said, “than our whole family combined.”
Maher values the Autism Classic as an educational tool. “I think it’s important that all young people give back, that they have an understanding of things around them and that you have to help out,” Maher said.
Students can learn merely by observing Jeff and the coping skills he developed. “He’s taught us all so much,” Alison said. “He’s taught us compassion. He’s taught us what really matters in life – it’s family, it’s community, it’s love.”