Tony Snell: Autism Fuels NBA Success

Diagnosed with autism as an adult, former NBA star Tony Snell attributes his basketball success to his ASD-related hyperfocus.

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Tony Snell recalls watching his young sons at play and realizing that their behavior brought  back memories from his own childhood. It was a moment that would lead Tony to a journey of self-discovery and his ASD diagnosis.

“It was like a deja vu moment,” says Tony. “It reminded me of what I used to do at (my son’s) age. I didn't really start talking until I was four, maybe five years old, and it’s the same with him. So, everything now makes sense. It was like watching myself all over again.”

What makes Tony’s story all the more remarkable is that his diagnosis came not only at age 31 but after the American had played his way up from the crime-and-drug-infested streets of Los Angeles to a nine-year career with the National Basketball Association (NBA).

When Tony went public with his discovery in June of 2023, it made headlines worldwide.

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Tony Snell, who has autism, soars on the basketball court.

The structure of sports helps people with ASD flourish

“It definitely answered a whole lot of questions, a lot of signs that I didn't see back then,” says Tony of his diagnosis. “I have a superpower of being super focused but the downside of being super focused is that it disconnects me with other people. I couldn't really relate or be comfortable around crowds, not knowing what to say, or how to communicate with people, and having that anxiety all the time. I just learned to deal with it. I just kept my distance and stayed alone and had always been that way. I'm always getting comfortable with uncomfortable situations. But, you know, being diagnosed, it suddenly all just made perfect sense.”

Fresh from a workout with his current basketball team, the NBA G League Maine Celtics, Snell reveals that he had always been told he was “different.”

Raised by his mother while his father found himself in and out of prison, Tony says he had difficulty engaging with others and with his schoolwork. Only basketball’s routines of training and playing offered him “a comfortable structure” and an escape from the violence that shadowed his childhood.

“Basketball really saved my life,” he says. “It saved me from making bad decisions and bad choices, from getting killed on the streets. My mom took me to watch a basketball game, and I just fell in love with it. Everything from then was just based on playing basketball and that helped me not make bad decisions on the street, helped me stay out of trouble. I always wanted to play ball, while my other friends were getting in trouble and doing bad things.”

How people with ASD make connections through playing sports

Tony played college basketball for the New Mexico Lobos before being selected by the famed Chicago Bulls franchise in the 2013 NBA Draft, through which teams select emerging college talent. He has since gone on to play for the Bulls, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Detroit Pistons, the Atlanta Hawks, the Portland Trail Blazers and the New Orleans Pelicans.

It's always been hard for me to find a way to connect with people because I couldn't relate to them. But when I play basketball, I make friends, which is a great thing for me. I just found basketball and then I just put all my eggs in that basket and that has led to me being a nine-year professional.

Supporting other minorities with ASD 

Tony’s two boys – Karter (three) and Kenzo (two) - have also been diagnosed with ASD, and along with his wife Ashley, the sportsman has established the Tony Snell Foundation, which aims to “foster understanding and acceptance of autism within society, with a particular focus on supporting minorities on the spectrum” and which holds such annual initiatives as a basketball camp for children with ASD. Learning about his own condition is also helping Tony and Ashley provide the necessary support their children need.

In sharing his story with the world, Tony also wants to inspire.

“My wife saw something in me that I didn't see myself. She's been the biggest supporter in my life, and now we have two beautiful boys. Being diagnosed really did give me a purpose, to not only help my sons but to help families that are struggling, that don’t have resources. I think ASD families share many of the same experiences, like finding help and getting registered for help. It's hard for minorities who can't afford it. I want to be able to help them, and by also sharing my story let these kids know that anything is possible.”

Tony’s Tips for Parents

  • Spreading awareness helps kids learn they are not alone - there are people out there who are just like them.
  • Just because a child is on a spectrum doesn’t mean they can’t play sports. In fact, sports can help them thrive.
  • Learn to become comfortable with uncomfortable situations.
  • Connecting with the ASD community will help you find the resources you need.
  • ASD diagnosis will help everything make sense.