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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's support of autism acceptance reached global audience

Tom Orsborn

Apr 20, 2024

Spurs fan Martin Krøger, although 5,300 miles away in Denmark, had the sense coach Gregg Popovich's comments after a recent game in support of autism acceptance were made for his benefit.

"If I could ever thank that man in person, this would be at the top of my list of things to thank him for," Krøger, a 50-year-old IT consultant, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Krøger was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, when he was 48.

"Forget the wins and the titles, that's just a game," Krøger wrote after hearing the NBA's all-time winningest coach's message of inclusion. "Seeing people for who they are and using your platform for doing good works, that's what really matters in the end."

After wearing Nike custom Air Force 1 sneakers sporting a colorful infinity symbol with the words "Inclusion" and "To The Max" during a home game against Philadelphia on April 7 as part of the NBA's efforts to promote Autism Acceptance Month, Popovich spoke about the need to value those living on the autism spectrum.

"We're just trying to bring some awareness to autism," he said. "I didn't even realize it was that prolific. I guess it's one out of every 37 children is diagnosed with autism, and that's a lot more than I think I knew. But it's a malady I think is misunderstood in some ways. It's like it's a 'bad thing' or that person is the 'other'. Now, that person is just different and really deserves our attention, our support and a realization they have other advantages, or advantages is the wrong word, but other traits that make them special.

"So giving them love and support is really important and hopefully people will understand they need to be included. They can't be put aside as 'others'. They need to be included and supported."

Autism advocates applauded the empathy and support shown by Popovich, 75.

"It’s absolutely wonderful," said Tiffany Fresher, CEO of the Autism Community Network, a San Antonio nonprofit that works to "maximize the potential of children with autism by providing early diagnosis for those with limited access and educating and empowering the community to support them," according to its website.

Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a condition that ranges from mild to serious and is typically marked by social awkwardness, communication difficulties, repetitive behaviors and other problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, autism affects one in every 36 children and one in 45 adults in the United States.

Popovich and other NBA coaches embraced Autism Acceptance Month in response to an effort by Utah Jazz assistant coach Scott Morrison and his wife Susanne to raise awareness after their son Max was diagnosed with autism in 2022.

"Before the season started, we just knew we wanted to do something to try and help or contribute," Morrison told USA Today. "And we had the idea to just maybe tap into the handful of coaches I knew just to see who would be interested in wearing the shoes as a way to highlight autism."

Gregg Popovich and other coaches across the league wore custom Nike Air Force 1 shoes for a pair of games as part of an NBA-wide initiative to raise awareness for autism.

The sneakers were signed by the coaches and auctioned off to raise funds for the To The Max Foundation, a nonprofit founded by the Morrisons to support autistic individuals and their families.

Dr. Melissa D. Svoboda, director of the autism program at the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, said it was "amazing" to hear Popovich draw attention to autism.

But she said his comments also reinforced her belief the public still needs more education about autism.

"When I first started my training, I told people I was going to work with autistic children, and they were like, 'Artistic? Like they draw?' " Svoboda said. "Nobody knew what autistic meant. Thank goodness, fast forward, fifteen, twenty years later and now it is so much more common, but you still have people like coach Popovich saying, 'Oh, I didn’t know it was this common.'

"It’s so common that there is this real big movement toward neurodiversity, which is really what he is getting at, that maybe (autism) is a spectrum of normal, especially with some of these higher functioning individuals. Some people may call them quirky, but they have a place here. There are some amazing things they do that other people don’t have as a skill set. And it really is about inclusion and support to make sure everybody, no matter ability or disability, finds a placed and a meaning in what they want to do."

The Autism Community Network works toward fulfilling that goal by helping families gain a better understanding of autism.

"When somebody in the family has autism, everyone is dealing with autism in their family," Fresher said. "We are trying to teach them their child’s strengths and how to communicate with their child and how to reduce stress in their help the family better communicate with the child, so the child’s stress is reduced as well."

Svoboda is hopeful that during Autism Acceptance Month people "on the more severe end of the spectrum who require a lot of support" aren't forgotten.

"A lot of this neurodiversity movement is centered on people at the higher end of the spectrum, but I think we have to make sure we are including everybody on every part of the spectrum," she said.

Krøger, the Danish Spurs fan who praised Popovich's comments on X, was also diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), along with Asperger's syndrome. 

Asperger's syndrome is a condition on the autism spectrum with generally higher functioning. People with the condition may be socially awkward and have an all-absorbing interest in specific topics, according to the website for the Nationwide Children's Hospital.

"It was a life-changing experience, suddenly realizing I could now let go of all of the guilt and anger I'd carried around with me since childhood," Krøger wrote to the Express-News in a direct message on X about his diagnosis.

 "I came to accept that while I was in fact different from most of the people around me, that did not mean there was something wrong with me. I was simply that: different."

Krøger wote that being "very open" about his diagnosis with family, friends and colleagues has been a freeing experience.

"People deserved to know how much hard work goes into just living with someone like me or into living with children with the same difficulties," he wrote.

" It's been very heartening to see the reactions my wife and I have gotten from people we know. Still, I'm able to mask my neurodivergence somewhat when I'm out in the world and so I still get to hear how people talk about 'everyone wants a diagnosis for their kid these days' and questioning the validity of the difficulties facing us.

"That's why Pop's comments moved me. Being the son of a no-nonsense coach in that same gruff but caring mold, it's probably no surprise I already hold him in high regard. It just means so incredibly much to people like me that a man of his stature takes the opportunity to educate folks on something as simple but meaningful as remembering to include us, even though we're a bit different.

"His reminder that we need love and support really hit home for me, knowing that while I'm fortunate in that regard, I know too many who weren't as lucky as me."

To see the article on the San Antonio Express News website visit


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