For Jacob: Joe and Renae Ingles opened up about their family's autism journey to give voice to others

by Aaron Falk

Joe Ingles is always talking. Watch him closely during a Utah Jazz game and you’ll see the Aussie forward chatting up his teammates, cracking jokes with referees, and talking trash to opposing players and fans. But there were times earlier this year—“days and days for weeks on end”—that Ingles showed up to the team’s practice facility, pushed through the workday, and left without saying so much as a word to anyone.

“People knew something was up,” he says now.

At first, Ingles went to his coach, Quin Snyder, so that he would know there might be days Ingles would be late. He talked to Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey and a few close teammates, too. Then on February 13, Joe and Renae Ingles told the world: their 2-year-old son Jacob had officially been diagnosed with autism.

Finally, Joe Ingles was ready to have a conversation.

In the weeks since they went public with Jacob’s diagnosis, the family has been overjoyed by the support they’ve received—and proud of the chance to raise awareness of ASD (autism spectrum disorder).

That conversation continued Wednesday as the Utah Jazz planned Autism Awareness Night at Vivint Smart Home Arena when 18,000-plus fans will join together in celebration and support of the families who have been touched by autism.

“The more people that talk about it,” Joe said, “the better.”

The Diagnosis

It’s a February afternoon, and Joe and Renae are all smiles as they watch Jacob explore the play therapy stations and activity panels inside the sensory room on the fifth level of the downtown arena. The room is a safe space for children with autism and other intellectual disabilities. And, like autism itself, the room wasn’t something they paid much mind until it touched their lives.

“Going through what we’ve gone through the last few months, you find out exactly what it does and how good it is for kids with autism,” Joe said.

The family has learned a lot over the past few months.

When Jacob and Milla were born in the summer of 2016, Joe and Renae were told not to compare their twins to each other. Jacob and Milla would develop at different rates, have different tastes, interests and skills.

Still, they couldn’t help but notice the differences. Milla had a far greater vocabulary and mimicked her parents’ actions. Jacob wouldn’t make eye contact. He was picky with food. When they took the children to play at a gym, Jacob isolated socially.

“It started to trigger some questions in our minds,” Renae said.

They took Jacob to a pediatrician who shared the same concerns. The family began a long and difficult diagnostic process. On January 8, the day of Jacob’s diagnosis, his parents steeled themselves for the results while holding out hope that their instincts were wrong.

They watched the doctors work through a series of assessments. Jacob, like his father, loves cars. He always keeps a few favorites with him. He loves particular things. He loves to line his cars up, neat and in order. The doctors asked Jacob to line them up. He did, 10 in a perfect little row.

“He’s dominating,” Joe thought. “This is awesome.”

At the end of the session, they were told their son was on the spectrum.

“It wasn’t a shock,” Renae said, “and it still hit us like a ton of bricks.”

“I don’t know if we talked on the way home,” Joe said.

Renae went to work, making a long list of schools and therapists.

They’re glad they trusted their instincts and followed through so they could find out early. Now, Jacob is getting 25 hours a week of speech and occupational therapy.

“Early intervention gives kids the best chance of having more normalized schooling and life going forward,” Renae said. “The younger they learn those skills, the better. We’re really pleased that we trusted our gut and can get him intervention at 2 ½ years old.”

At one point during the assessment process, Joe went to his computer and typed the search words into Google: “famous people with autism” and then “can people with autism play sports”.

The Utah Jazz forward wondered if the boy he loves so much could play the game Joe loves so much. But in the wake of Jacob’s autism diagnosis, Ingles would have given back all fame and fortune for his son to be OK.

Now, they know their son will be. 

Support on the Court

There were times this season when Joe didn’t want to be at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

“I remember calling Renae several times on the way to games, crying,” Joe said. “Basketball was so irrelevant to me, which seems like a stupid thing to say because it’s my job and I’m very lucky. It just felt irrelevant at the time. I felt guilty leaving these three at home.”

On Wednesday night, though, the arena is the only place he’ll want to be.

Fans will receive a blue rally towel with the words “Let’s Talk about Autism” inscribed on it, and there will be a moment of celebration for all families in attendance that have been touched by autism.

Jazz players Ricky Rubio, Rudy Gobert, Ekpe Udoh, and Donovan Mitchell will wear custom sneakers with Jacob’s name and puzzle pieces—the symbol for autism awareness—on them.

“He’s a brother. He’s not just a teammate. He’s a friend and a brother,” Rubio said of Ingles. “Everything he goes through, we go through too. I know how tough it was for him. He kind of talked to us lowkey at some point this season.”

Rubio is proud of Joe and Renae’s approach to Jacob’s diagnosis.

“It’s great for the community and the world, having parents like that,” Rubio said. “They’re not being shy to show the problem that they have, and they’re helping others through their problems too.”

The Ingles have found a home in Utah and with the Jazz over the past five years. But the support they have received this season has taken it to another level.

“There’s no other place I’d want to be,” Joe said.

Keep Talking

The tattoos were Renae’s idea.

“Joe was probably more shocked than after the diagnosis,” she joked.

When the twins were born, Joe got Jacob’s and Milla’s names tattooed on his wrist. He wanted more, though—something on his back, his leg, his arms. “I told him I’d change the locks,” Renae said. But after Jacob’s diagnosis, Renae wanted to do something, so the couple got puzzle pieces inked onto their skin. For them, it’s another conversation starter.

“I want people to ask me about it,” Joe said.

“Everyone has a story to tell,” Renae said. “We want other people to tell theirs because telling ours has really helped us along the way.”

“It’s giving a voice to others,” Joe said. “We've had so many people write us to say, ‘Our journey has been the same as yours.’ People were saying it felt like our story was telling their story to the world. It’s had a way bigger impact than we’d thought.”

Landon Carter’s story is one. Two years ago, Joe met Landon and formed a bond. Landon, 9, is a huge Jazz fan who is legally blind. He was born without irises in his eyes, and his condition had kept him from ever watching his favorite basketball team play. So Joe provided him with a pair of high-tech glasses that have allowed him to see well enough to watch games. Joe and the Carters have stayed in touch over the past two years. But it was only after Jacob’s diagnosis went public, though, that Landon’s family reached out to tell Joe that Landon was also on the spectrum.

“For me, it’s even cooler,” Joe said. “I get to hang out with him and we’ll get him and Jacob together and they’ll get to hang out.”

Joe and Renae made sure that Landon would be at the arena on Wednesday night. Autism Awareness Night will feature youth with autism joining the Jazz and Lakers on the floor during the National Anthem. For every assist Joe dishes out, Vivint Smart Home will donate $5,000, up to $25,000—part of the $1.2 million Vivint Gives Back, the Utah Jazz and the Ingles family are committed to donating in support of autism awareness in 2019.

And the Ingleses will keep the conversation going—because the more they talk about it, the better.

For Joe and Renae.

“I can honestly say that since the day we announced it, Joe has newfound energy,” Renae said.

For Jacob.

“We wouldn’t change him,” Joe said. “As we go along this journey, we’ll figure out what he needs. Every kid is different. Along the journey, we’ll find out different things and keep adjusting.”

For everyone.

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