You may know him as Jinglin’ Joe or you may know his quirky smile on the court, but in the past few months, Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles has taken on a new role — that of a parent in the autism world.
Joe Ingles and his wife Renae’s 2-year-old son was diagnosed with autism in January, which has given not only their family, but the whole Utah Jazz family a very personal look into the experiences of those on the autism spectrum.
Wednesday night, the Jazz, along with Vivint and the Ingles family, celebrated Autism Awareness Night as the team beat the Los Angeles Lakers 115-100 at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City. The special night honoring those with autism in Utah is an annual event sponsored by Vivint and the Utah Jazz.
Statistics show that one in 54 children in Utah have been diagnosed with autism, compared to the one in 59 nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control — something the Jazz and Vivint say is a reason to take notice.
This year’s Autism Awareness Night had a different feel than years past, however, as many of the events centered around Joe Ingles and his family’s experience with autism. Even Joe Ingles said that this year’s event was different for him personally. In previous years he hadn’t taken as much notice of the event, but this year, it obviously meant more.
The Ingles began noticing differences in their 2-year-old son Jacob about seven months ago. From the time their twins were born, Renae Ingles said that people encouraged them not to compare their twins, especially since one is male and one is female.
But she said that the differences between twins Milla and Jacob were too noticeable to ignore. They saw differences in vocabulary, the sounds they were making, mimicking behavior, in social interaction and extreme pickiness with eating.
The couple decided to begin the process of testing their son.
“For us it was about should we start asking these questions, if there is something going on and find out either way,” Renae Ingles said. “It was doing what everyone told us not to do, and comparing the twins and then trusting our gut.”
For the couple, the process of getting a diagnosis was difficult, and time consuming, with a lot of waiting between assessments and tests.
During the process, Joe Ingles said that managing his career while managing the emotions of having a child diagnosed with autism was hard, though at the time, he didn’t really recognize the struggle in himself.
“I would come in here for weeks on end, and most of you know I’m pretty talkative, loud and annoying. I would park, I’d walk in, do practice, do shoot-around, do whatever it was, and leave without speaking to one person, and that isn’t me.”
“I was just going on a different journey that was bigger than basketball at the time,” he said.
Joe Ingles spoke with Jazz Head Coach Quinn Snyder during the process of diagnosing his son, not because he wanted the situation to take him away from his job, but because he wanted him to understand that there might be days when he was off.
The response was that the organization was 100 percent behind them, Joe Ingles said.
“We’ve been here five years, and the organization’s been unreal to us as a family for five years, but this has kind of pushed it over the edge,” Joe Ingles said. “They say ‘team is everything’ and all that, but it really is, it’s one big family and I’m very glad that I’m here at the Jazz.”
The family told select members of the Jazz organization and slowly told other teammates.
The official diagnosis came on Jan. 8, after a long process of testing, assessments and evaluations.
More than a month later, the couple published an article they penned together on the Australian news website Exclusive Insight, which detailed to the world the story of their son’s diagnosis and their family’s journey.
“We felt like we were coping really well once we found out Jacob’s diagnosis and we were just ticking the boxes and doing what we had to do, but as soon as it went public and we found a way that we wanted to announce it, I got my husband back,” Renae Ingles said. “I don’t think we realized that he sort of had a weight on his shoulders, and same for me.”
The couple said that since they have shared their story, they have found a sort of therapy in talking about it with others, especially from those in the autism community.
Shortly after sharing their news with the world, the Ingles received numerous letters and messages from the community, many saying that the story the Ingles told was similar to their story and thanking the couple for being a voice for them.
“As soon as we got the diagnosis, we almost went internal and felt like we were the only ones dealing with this at that very time, and I think once we came out with the article and announced what we were going through, the overwhelming amount of people that messaged us that either had a child on the spectrum or were on the spectrum themselves or knew someone on the spectrum … the support was so incredible, and I think that is one of the biggest things that has helped us,” Renae Ingles said.
Emphasizing Early Intervention
While the Ingles say that they are trying to not let the diagnosis change their lives in drastic ways, there are ways that it has.
Jacob has therapists in their home 20-25 hours a week, and Renae said that managing his schedule while managing two athletic careers, other activities for their daughter and having downtime as a family can be a difficult balance.
But even now, just months after their son’s diagnosis, they are seeing sparks of improvement in Jacob.
“To hear his voice for the first time is something you don’t forget,” Joe Ingles said. “You kind of take those things for granted, because you just kind of expect it to happen as the process goes on and we weren’t getting that with Jacob.”
The Ingles said that they learned pretty quickly that early intervention at a young age is key for children on the spectrum, and that the best advice they could give to those who are questioning if their child has autism is to get them tested.
“The process is tough and long and a lot of waiting time as well, but you’re better off to go ask the questions, get checked and find out there’s no diagnosis, rather than ignore it for longer and miss a diagnosis,” Renae Ingles said.
April is Autism Awareness Month and Tuesday is World Autism Day, something the Jazz and Vivint kicked off a few days early with Wednesday’s events.
“For us, it’s really about the awareness of it,” Joe Ingles said. “Even us when we found out, I knew what it was, I’d heard about it, I knew families that had kids that had it, but I really didn’t know what it was or how it affected them.”
The Ingles have worked over the past few months to help with fundraising for charities, especially charities that assist families with the financial end of helping their children with autism. They also got matching tattoos, along with Renae Ingles’ parents. Each have a puzzle piece tattoo on their wrist, which is a symbol for autism. They say that it helps to generate conversations with those around them, as a way to spread more awareness.
Joe Ingles said that he was thankful to participate in the Autism Awareness Night on Wednesday, not purely for Jacob, but for every other family that is going through the same thing, especially those in Utah.
The night featured special guests from the autism community on the court with both teams during the National Anthem, calls for fans to donate to an autism charity and blue rally towels for every fan that donned the phrase “Let’s talk about autism.” The team store also sold autism awareness Jazz shirts with puzzle piece logo designs.
This year, the organizations emphasized turning awareness into action through donations to autism charity organizations.
The event included a special presentation after the third quarter where Vivint Gives Back, the charitable arm of Vivint, the Utah Jazz and the Ingles family presented a check for $1.2 million for autism research.
Several players — Donovan Mitchell, Ricky Rubio, Rudy Gobert, Ekpe Udoh and Joe Ingles — also wore customized shoes that sported the words 4 ASD Kids, which is a charity that helps to sponsor kids affected by autism spectrum disorders, as well as the name of Joe Ingles’ son Jacob. All five pairs of shoes were to be auctioned off after the game for charity.
But the efforts to raise awareness and help families with autism isn’t something new for the Jazz or for Vivint. The Jazz’ Autism Awareness nights have been held annually since 2015.
In 2018, in conjunction with the Autism Awareness Night, Vivint also opened a sensory room at Vivint Smart Home Arena for children on the spectrum. The sensory room, built by Vivint Smart Home, is intended to give those with autism and other developmental disabilities a safe haven where they can go to find a calming environment.
“Today’s not one day, and tomorrow we will forget about it and move on, for us it’s for the rest of our lives,” Joe Ingles said. “So we’re going to continue to push it out there.”