SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles has played in a number of the annual games at Vivint Arena designated as Autism Awareness Night, but Wednesday’s contest against the Los Angeles Lakers held special meaning for him.
Ingles and his wife Renae’s 2½-year-old son Jacob was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder on Jan. 8, and on Feb. 13, the couple publicly announced the diagnosis in a blog post on an Australian-based website.
That announcement made the two world-class athletes (Renae is an Olympic netball player) de facto spokespeople for individuals with ASD, something they are fully embracing.
Wednesday night, then, provided an opportunity for them, in conjunction with the Jazz organization, to put the journey they and many others are experiencing front and center during the game.
“We were really glad and lucky that (the annual game hadn’t been played yet) and thankful that there was an opportunity that was going to come up like this that we could help and contribute,” Joe Ingles said Wednesday morning.
As part of the night, a group of youth who have autism stood with players during the national anthem, and special recognition was made during the break between the third and fourth quarters of families in attendance that have been affected by the disorder.
During that recognition, fans waved a blue towel they had each received which had the message “Let’s Talk about Autism” printed on it, and they were encouraged to post about the night on social media using #LetsTalkAboutAutism and #AutismAwareness.
A check for $1.2 million from Vivint Gives Back, the Ingles family and the Jazz was presented to causes aimed at helping people with autism.
Additionally, a text line was established for fans to donate money to programs for individuals with autism, and a special autism awareness shirt and blue (recognized as the official color of autism awareness) cookies from Chip Cookies were for sale.
On the court, Vivint Smart Home pledged to donate $5,000 for each assist Joe Ingles tallied during the game up to five, a mark he reached less than 10 minutes into the contest (he wound up a rebound short of a triple-double). Also, he and four of his teammates wore special shoes designed by the nationally recognized Kickstradomis, each pair of which had “Jacob” inscribed on them.
They will be auctioned off for charity.
For both Joe and Renae, their son’s diagnosis was a big weight lifted off their shoulders, although they initially felt isolated. After they publicly announced it, however, they received countless messages from people around the world who are either on the autism spectrum themselves or who are caring for people who are (1 in 54 kids in Utah is diagnosed with ASD).
Many of the messages conveyed the idea that the Ingles’ announcement gave them a voice, and that their story of learning about Jacob’s disorder was common.
“We just thought (the announcement) would come out and would die down and we’d kind of keep moving along with our journey, but it’s been pretty amazing,” Joe Ingles said.
In fact, as time has gone on, Joe Ingles said talking about what he and his family are experiencing helps him work through the challenges they face. That became a big reason why he and Renae each got a tattoo of a puzzle piece, which has become a symbol for autism awareness, during February’s All-Star break. They want the tattoos to be a conversation-starter.
“For me, talking about it is one of the best things,” Joe Ingles said. “Obviously we talk about it a lot. It kind of consumes our whole day, really.”
Both he and his wife said he struggled mightily during the long diagnosis process, but that finally getting an answer eased a huge burden in his mind.
“I don’t think we realized that he sort of had a weight on his shoulders, and same for me, but definitely that day, an hour after the press release went out, the overwhelming support that we’ve received from everyone all over the world certainly was really heartwarming, and we got Joe back that day,” Renae Ingles said Wednesday. “It was a weight lifted off his shoulders, and he had his bounce back.”
Moving forward, Renae Ingles said Wednesday morning that she and her husband are trying to keep life as normal as possible for Jacob and his twin sister Milla, beyond the 4-plus hours of in-home therapy Jacob is receiving each weekday.
Joe Ingles recognized that while their aim Wednesday night was to help spread awareness of ASD, many in the crowd would leave the arena without giving much thought to it, while he and his family, along with many others, will continue to work through the challenges associated with it each day.
In addition to the work Joe and Renae will do to raise Jacob and Milla, they’ll be advocating for others in their same situation, and they hope to make autism awareness more prominent in sports in both the United States and Australia.
“Obviously today is not one day and tomorrow we’ll forget about it and move on,” he said. “For us it’s for the rest of our lives. It’s not going to stop for us.”