Tony Snell has lived with autism his entire life, but the 31-year-old professional basketball player only recently learned of 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 her story in an exclusive interview with TODAY’s Craig Melvin that aired Friday, June 16.
At 31 years old, 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 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 some gangs or just all the negative stuff back then, but basketball just kept me on the same 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 in the NBA at the age of 21. After nine seasons in the big leagues, Snell signed with the G League team Maine Celtics in 2023.
But Snell said it’s the family he builds on 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 their young son Karter was starting to miss some developmental milestones.
“At 18 months, he still wasn’t talking (and) he was doing a lot of stimulating movements… He always has to have six or seven toys in his hands, usually one is always a basketball,” Ashley Snell told Craig. A doctor later told Snell 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 US 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, movement or attention, according to the CDC.
For Snell, his son’s autism diagnosis was a lightbulb moment that made him reflect on his own behavior as a child.
“I’ve always been independent growing up, I’ve always been alone…I just couldn’t connect with people (on) the personal side of things,” Snell said.
“I’m like, if (Karter) gets diagnosed, I think I am too… It gave me the courage to go get tested,” Snell added.
Last year, at age 31, Snell was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. “I wasn’t surprised because I always felt different… It was just a relief, like, oh, this is why I am who I am,” he said.
“It just made my whole life, everything about my life, so much sense. It was like a clarity, like putting on some 3D glasses.”
In the interview, Snell and Craig pointed out that autism is often overlooked or underdiagnosed in the black community. “We don’t have a lot of knowledge about it, and I think some people are nervous about opening up,” Snell said. “People have a lot of things going on individually, and it’s hard to open up about things that people might not know about.”
Ashley Snell added: “There are already so many factors that are difficult enough, adding that the diagnosis and the resources are not there so 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 that 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 latest data marks the first time that autism rates among minority groups were higher than among white 8-year-olds.
When asked if he thought his life might have been different if he had been diagnosed with autism at a young age, Snell said he believes a childhood diagnosis might actually have hindered him because of the lack of understanding and stigma surrounding autism.
“I think I (probably would have) been limited with the things I could probably do… I don’t think I would have been in the NBA if I was diagnosed with autism, because then they probably would have put a limit or a ceiling to my abilities,” Snell said.
Today, Snell makes it her mission to stand up as a role model for her son and others, demonstrating that people with autism are capable of greatness. By partnering with Special Olympics, Snell helps young athletes chase their dreams.
“I just want to change lives and inspire people. I want to make sure my son knows I have his back,” Snell said. “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 to achieve 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 particular focus on supporting minorities diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, particularly those in inner cities.