SE: Amerson's Life Centers on Helping Autistic Children

Former Wildcat men's basketball player Keith Amerson works with autistic children in New Rochelle, N.Y.

July 19, 2013

This feature appeared in the July 19 edition of the K-State Sports Extra. This is the second part of a two-part series with the former men's basketball player Keith Amerson, who now works with autistic children and the Tri-State Learning Center located in New Rochelle, N.Y.  The first part can be found here.

By Mark Janssen

Keith Amerson played basketball for the Wildcats from 1989 through 1991 after transferring from Santa Monica Community College.

While posting modest statistical numbers as a Wildcat, he was a model student, and today the Keith Amerson Academic Award recognizes the top student-athlete in the men’s basketball program.

After a mini-career in the United States Basketball League, Amerson looked in a mirror and opted for an even more meaningful life off the court. 

SE: Keith, Where did life take you after basketball?

KA: I honestly went back to Santa Monica and started to go through the health care want ads in the newspapers and found a job in a group home in the San Fernando Valley. I took a job with a Penny Lane Group Home for adolescents, who had their own struggles in life. I worked the graveyard shift from 11:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m., where kids would wake up screaming, or want to leave the house around birthdays or special holidays, so I would try to ease their struggles.

Many of the kids were awarded to the court, neglected, or sexually abused, and I was part of that treatment team. A kid might be with us, but his brother would be somewhere else, and his sister someplace else, so it was pretty challenging.

Then I also started working during the day at a place connected with UCLA called the Young Autism Project. I remember walking in the door the first time and seeing through a window a woman working with a young Autistic boy who wouldn’t talk. He couldn’t stay still. He was tapping on everything, but refusing to talk. But when the therapist started to work with him, his disposition changed immediately.

He started paying attention and he was a different kid.

At that moment I said, ‘Whatever she is doing, I want to do that with my life.’ I knew nothing about Autism when I first walked in the door, but that’s when the light switch went on and it became my life-long direction.

SE: I understand in the spring of 1995 you changed locations moving to Westchester County, New York.

KA: Yes, a stockbroker got ahold of me who had triplets with two having Autism with one being very severe on the spectrum. I moved in with that family, with Andrew (a 5-year-old) being my responsibility. It was truly a life-changing event for me. I was waking up with the kid in the morning, and spending all day until he went to bed at night. But if he didn’t sleep, I didn’t sleep. I did this for six years until he improved enough to enter a school and my hours decreased. It was like when I was playing basketball. No one was going to out-work me, and this was going to be the same.

SE: And from that came your company … the Tri-State Learning Center.

KA: Yes. We serve the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut areas and this has become my life-long work. I worked with some other people for three years, but started this company in 2000. We work with school districts by providing teaching to teachers as to how to educate kids with Autism. We work with kids in their home, but our goal is for the youngsters to transition back into the schools. When they do, we want teachers prepared to teach them.

I currently have around 25 employees and we service about 80 or 90 kids in the various school districts. I own the company, but I’m still very hands on in dealing with the kids. We are a “School Without Walls.”

SE: What are the new numbers to Autism?

KA: Autism knows no boundaries whether that be race or economic standing. The only thing that stands out some is that it’s more common in boys than girls. It used to be five or six kids out of every 10,000 births, and now it’s one in every 86. It’s frightening. If I had an answer to why the numbers have increased I’d make the biggest donation that this school has ever had. There are many studies ranging from genetics to vaccinations, but nothing has been revealed as conclusive.

SE: What can young parents look for if they would have a concern with a young child?

KA: We deal with kids between 4 and high school, but typically kids are diagnosed with Autism between the ages of 2 and 5. The early sign is when a kid is not talking … a kid that is 3 or 4 and not talking is a red flag. Kids that don’t make eye contact, or kids that don’t want to interact and don’t want to be a part of what’s going on are other red flags.

SE: I understand you’re almost neighbors with former President Bill Clinton?

KA: Well, I’m three or four miles depending on which winding road you go down from where they live, but you occasionally see him out jogging or at the bookstore. I’ve never spoken to him, but would like to. They are very involved in the community and former Senator (Hillory) Clinton used to go to some of the Autism efforts in the community. She has been very supportive of what we’re trying to accomplish with Autistic kids.

SE: Back to basketball, I understand that you’re still in it with your Basketball I.Q. Company.

KA: Yes, I work in the area on educating kids on the game. We have five trainers and we train a little over 100 kids in our area anywhere from 7-years-old to a few in high school. It’s designed to work on fundamentals, but also focusing on doing things right off the court as well. Winning and losing with some of our teams is important, but not as important as winning and losing in life.

We have also worked with the Sports Authority with a program called ‘Project Reach,’ which is a program that reaches out to programs across the nation in need of basketball supplies whether that be basketballs, whistles or clipboards. It’s a supply company that provides equipment at a reduced rate.

SE: Keith, in 5 to 10 years, where do you want to see your program?

KA: Seriously, I want to be unemployed at the Tri-States Learning Center. I would hope that there would be no reason for it because in two or three years they have found a cure for Autism. I know it’s not realistic, but I long for that day.