Tony Snell has lived with autism his entire life, but the 31-year-old professional basketball player only recently learned about his diagnosis as an adult.
Now, for the first time, Snell is opening up about being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder to show others that the sky is the limit. Snell shared his story in an exclusive interview with TODAY’s Craig Melvin aired on Friday, June 16.
At 31, Snell boasts an impressive career in American professional basketball. The NBA veteran has played for teams including the Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans.
Snell has come a has come a long way from growing up as a tall, shy kid in South Los Angeles, where he defied the odds to reach basketball stardom. “I could have easily joined in some gangs or just all negative things back then, but basketball just kept me on the straight narrow path that I wanted to be on,” Snell told Craig.
According to Snell, that intense focus — along with hard work and determination — landed him the NBA at the age of 21. After nine seasons in the major league, Snell signed with G-league team the Maine Celtics in 2023.
But Snell said it’s the family he’s building off the basketball court that has changed him the most and helped him in his own journey of self-discovery.
Last year, he and his wife, Ashley Snell, noticed that their young son Karter had started to miss some developmental milestones.
“By 18 months, he still wasn’t talking (and) he was doing a lot of stimming movements. … He always has to have like six or seven toys in his hands, usually one is always a basketball,” Ashley Snell told Craig. A doctor later told Snell that they needed to get Karter tested for autism, she added.
Autism, also called autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People with autism spectrum disorder may experience problems with communication or social interaction, restricted or repetitive behaviors (such as stimming) and interests, and differences in learning, moving or paying attention, per the CDC.
For Snell, his son’s autism diagnosis was a lightbulb moment that caused him to reflect on his own behavior as a child.
“I was always independent growing up, I’ve always been alone. … I just couldn’t connect with people (on) the personal side of things,” said Snell.
“I’m like, if (Karter) is diagnosed, then I think I am too. … That gave me the courage to go get checked up,” Snell added.
Last year, at the age of 31, Snell was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. “I was not surprised because I always felt different. … It was just relief, like, oh, this why I am the way I am,” he said.
“It just made my whole life, everything about my life, make so much sense. It was like a clarity, like putting some 3D glasses on.”
In the interview, Snell and Craig pointed out that autism is often overlooked or under-diagnosed in the Black community. “We don’t have much knowledge of it, and I think some people are nervous to open up,” Snell said. “People got lots of stuff going on individually, and it’s hard to open up to things that people might not know about.”
Ashley Snell added: “There’s already so many factors that are hard enough, adding that the diagnosis and resources are not there as easily, where do you even go to start?”
In the past, Black and Hispanic children have been less likely to be diagnosed with autism than white children, likely due to barriers in accessing evaluation and other services. But a 2023 CDC report found autism diagnoses in minority communities are on the rise; diagnoses in Black, Asian and Hispanic 8-year-olds increased by 30% between 2018 and 2020, according to CDC data. The most recent data marks the first time autism rates among minority groups were higher than in white 8-year-olds.
When asked if he thought his life could have been different had he been diagnosed with autism at a young age, Snell said he thinks a childhood diagnosis could’ve actually hindered him due to the lack of understanding and stigma around autism.
“I think I (would’ve) probably been limited with the stuff I could probably do. … I don’t think I’d have been in the NBA if I was diagnosed with autism because back then they’d probably put a limit or cap on my abilities,” Snell said.
Today, Snell is making it his mission to stand up as a role model for his son and others, and demonstrate that people with autism are capable of achieving greatness. By partnering with the Special Olympics, Snell is helping young athletes chase their dreams.
“I just want to change lives and inspire people. I want to make sure my son knows that I have his back,” said Snell. “When I was a kid, I felt different … but now I could show him that I’m right here with you, (and) we’re going to ride this thing together. We’re going to grow together, and we’re going to accomplish a lot of things together.”
Snell and his family also started the Tony Snell Foundation to help promote understanding and acceptance of autism, with a special focus on supporting minorities diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, especially those in inner cities.
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