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NBA Players with Autism: Breaking Barriers

Publish Date: 01.04.2024
Fact checked by: Jackson T. Pierce

Autism is one of the most stigmatized conditions on Earth. Many people assume it’s debilitating, and that those with it cannot achieve lofty goals. While that’s true in some cases, in many cases it’s not. There are plenty of successful people with autism, including those in the NBA.

While there are not many, some professional athletes are on the spectrum. This guide covers that in further detail by looking at how autism awareness is growing in pro sports, and how certain athletes have helped that growth happen.

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Understanding Autism

Autism is a tough condition that comes with a wide range of behavioral, developmental, psychological, and cognitive issues. Such conditions can be mild or incredibly severe depending on the person.

Some people with autism have a tough time with social interactions, some struggle with aspects like speaking or holding conversations, and some just are not comfortable in loud or raucous environments. They can get overstimulated as well.

Taking all of that into account, it’s easy to see why those with autism tend to avoid or stray away from team sports. While something like baseball or bowling might be more manageable, most people with autism don’t do well in a group setting.

Not only does being on a team require a lot of communication, which can be difficult for those on the spectrum, but sports commonly happen in stadiums or gyms with a lot of noise. A lot occurs during a game, and that can get overwhelming.

However, just because those with autism tend to stay away from situations where they need to deal with overstimulating environments, doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. As always, everyone is different.

Trailblazers in the NBA

There aren’t too many pro athletes with autism, but there are athletes with autism at all levels. Just because someone has the condition doesn’t mean they don’t have the ability to play or enjoy the sport in a meaningful way. Such is the case with Tony Snell.

Snell is a long time NBA player who bounced around to various teams during his eight years in the league. He’s currently in the G-league and continues to play at a high level to this day. He also happens to have autism.

While Snell has had autism his entire life, it wasn’t until recently that he received an official diagnosis. That’s because his path to the NBA looked no different than any other pro.

Snell worked hard as a kid, coming up in Los Angeles, and played basketball so well that he earned a scholarship to New Mexico. From there, his determination paid off when the Bulls took him with the 20th pick in the 2013 NBA draft.

He survived in a tough league and proved to be roster worthy for six different NBA teams. The entire time he dealt with autism. He was typically independent and struggled connecting with other people on a deeper level, but never knew of his diagnosis.

It wasn’t until his own son started showing signs that he got checked. His diagnosis helped him see his basketball journey in a new way, but he also recognized that due to stigma in minority communities, not knowing he was autistic was likely a blessing in disguise.

Snell may not be the only NBA player with autism, but he’s helping break barriers by being the only one who’s been open about his condition. There could also be many like Snell who are not aware of their diagnosis either, and he may help them come to that realization.

Breaking Barriers

Snell’s journey was not an easy one, but his individualism and strong will helped him push through many obstacles that other athletes are not able to overcome. As he wasn’t aware of his diagnosis, there was no way he could have interacted with it.

By all accounts Snell had a standard NBA career and a standard NBA journey. He wasn’t alienated in the NBA, nor was he someone who had any trouble with teammates. He played hard and went out with great results night after night.

Despite that, his story goes a long way for fans who are on the spectrum. As with any pro athlete, fans look up to Snell. His experience as a pro player with autism undoubtedly inspires other athletes dealing with the condition and may help them push through like he did.

He also plans to be there for his son and, by normalizing the idea of a pro athlete with autism, plans to create a world where a ball player with the condition is not seen as a strange or unique situation.

Advocacy and Awareness

Snell is the only NBA player to have an autism diagnosis. As such, he’s currently taking the lead on bringing awareness to the condition and doing whatever he can to support other athletes with autism by helping them succeed.

He’s currently putting his resources into acting as a strong role model for the autism community and doing whatever he can to inspire other hopeful athletes. He wants to break down stigmas surrounding the condition and show that autism is not as debilitating as many perceive it to be.

His first big move on that front is a new partnership with the special olympics. He hopes that move will bring more awareness to the condition and help young athletes achieve their dreams.

On top of that, he and his family have started the Tony Snell Foundation. The main goal of that organization is to promote understanding and acceptance of autism. Snell also wants to put a special focus on minorities and kids in inner cities with the condition.

The Role of the NBA and Sports Organizations

The NBA has made great strides over the past few years in terms of inclusivity and they continue to increase their support for players with disabilities and conditions. Autism isn’t at the top of the list, but it’s important nonetheless.

NBA Cares, the league’s social responsibility program, addresses various important issues and supports critical organizations like the Special Olympics, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, UNICEF, and the Make-A-Wish-Foundation.

As a part of that, they also recognize plenty of youth-serving programs that back education, youth, and family development.

That’s a long list, but one that can always be expanded. The league has shown it strives to lead all large sport organizations in supporting those with different backgrounds. With Snell’s help that soon may include those with autism as well.


Tony Snell is the face of autism in pro sports, and his recent strides to bring awareness to the condition could go a long way in the future. He hopes to get athletes with the condition more into basketball and inspire the future generation as much as possible.

His charities go a long way, and they could do even more if the NBA gets involved. The league already does a lot for those with disabilities or conditions, and furthering their support to those with autism doesn’t seem like a huge leap.

The more welcoming the league is, the further it will go for fans and prospective players alike. Inclusivity is a key part of sports, and making those like Snell feel welcomed could do a lot for the future.

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