Autism Awareness: Exploring Challenges and Inspiring Hope with NBA Legend John Salley

Autism Awareness: Exploring Challenges and Inspiring Hope with NBA Legend John Salley

In the vibrant second episode of the “The Spectrum” podcast by ABA Centers of America, Dr. Ted Bender, a prominent clinical psychologist specializing in autism and advocate for mental health, meets with basketball legend and passionate autism awareness advocate John Salley. The following captures essential takeaways from the conversation, which you can hear in full by clicking here.

This fascinating interview highlights the personal impact of autism on John’s life, from his initial encounter with the condition to his deep commitment to advocating for and understanding autism, sparked by his daughter Taya’s diagnosis at the age of 18.

Table of Contents

Talking About Advocacy for Autism Awareness

John shares his emotional journey towards autism awareness, inspired by the experiences of his friends Rodney Pete and Holly Robinson, who founded the Holly Rod Foundation in honor of their son RJ, diagnosed with autism. This event marked the beginning of John’s mission to advocate for autism awareness. However, the impact became even more personal when his daughter, Taya, was diagnosed.


As she grew up, Taya exhibited a series of characteristic autism symptoms; John describes her as a shy and quiet girl, recalling her anger issues and the challenges she faced in learning things that we might consider simple.

“And I just looked at her being shy. So, she was the one who came to me and said, you guys didn't really push to get me diagnosed, and I had autism this whole time. And I was like, well, it's your superpower.

“I am always going to turn the negative, or if somebody thinks it's a negative, into a positive,” Salley went on to say. “And I started paying more attention because she was so hard on herself and wanted to be hard on us, too.”

Today, Taya Salley is a young athlete and model who speaks French. However, John stresses the importance of early diagnosis of autism.

The Importance of Paying Attention to Symptoms

Taya’s story reveals the importance of early diagnosis of autism. John highlights how he and his other children were able to navigate public life and deal with the flow of cameras, red carpets, and people grabbing them and shouting their names. Still, for Taya, this was extremely challenging and uncomfortable.

 So, paying attention to the behaviors that a child with autism may exhibit can be very helpful in identifying the condition more quickly. Another common symptom of children with autism spectrum disorder is difficulty understanding other people’s emotions. Difficulties in understanding others’ body language and facial gestures are symptoms that many people on the autism spectrum may exhibit, and parents may sometimes overlook. John mentions that Taya’s difficulty in perceiving others’ emotions and expressing her own emotions was often mistaken as a trait of a “cold” personality when, in reality, it was essential to pay attention to these signs.

“We would say that she was really unemotional. And we were like, oh, Taya's just so mean. She's a Taurus. You know, she's Taurus like you, and she's mean, and her temper and not understanding what she was talking about.”

John shares the experience he had with his daughter at the age of 14, taking her to a Drake concert, of which she was a huge fan. Despite not feeling comfortable in crowds, Taya fulfills her dream of meeting an idol, triggering a series of emotions and feelings in her that she struggles to identify. This was also a revealing sign.


Children on the autism spectrum face challenges not only in recognizing and managing the emotions of others but also in understanding and managing their feelings. This aspect, known as social-emotional reciprocity, represents a significant part of the struggles they face in their day-to-day lives.

Advancements Through Therapy

During the discussion, John shares Taya’s remarkable progress thanks to therapy, particularly in emotional understanding and expression. Although she still faces challenges, Taya has developed strategies to improve her communication and expression, demonstrating the crucial importance of early intervention and ongoing support.

Challenges and Reflections: Understanding Pressure in Individuals with Autism

Dr. Ted Bender delves into the challenges faced by individuals with autism due to high expectations and a lack of understanding. John emphasizes the importance of educating ourselves and being compassionate, recognizing that each individual has a unique journey. By increasing autism awareness and understanding, we can create a more inclusive and supportive world.


To make a difference in supporting individuals on the spectrum, both Dr. Bender and Salley highlight the need to learn as much as we can about the disorder, increase autism awareness, and seek and engage in therapy.

“We still do not fully comprehend or understand all the causes of autism… The science isn’t 100% clear yet. So, there is a lot to learn about it. We know that it's not necessarily curable, but with good treatment, the improvements can be amazing.”

Misdiagnoses and Weak Assessments

In the podcast, additional challenges faced by individuals with developmental disorders, such as autism, are addressed, including the often-occurring misdiagnoses. For example, hyperactivity, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and autism are conditions that are often confused or overlap, leading to incorrect prescriptions of medication and diagnoses.


Furthermore, Dr. Bender mentions another significant challenge: the frequency of superficial diagnostic evaluations. When referring to diagnostic categories, it is crucial to refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which sets the criteria that an individual must meet to receive an official diagnosis.


The diagnostic process should be comprehensive, include a variety of tests, and involve active participation from the family to gain a complete understanding of the individual needs of the patient.

8 Tips for Parents Caring for Children with Additional Needs

John Salley shares wise words aimed at parents facing the challenge of raising children with unique needs in their development and learning. Click on the link to listen to the full podcast and learn Salley’s tips.

ABA Centers of America and Autism Services

If you are a parent of a child or teenager with autism or showing signs of autism, you should know that ABA Centers of America is here for you. For more information about our autism services in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, contact us at (844) 923-4222 or visit our website. We also invite you to listen to the full episodes of our podcast on our YouTube channel.

Discover how our autism treatment services can help you.

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