Peter Dinoris and his family live in Brisbane, Australia, some 9,500 miles — or close to a half-world away — from Philadelphia. Yet they are massive Philadelphia Eagles fans. How could they not be? The Eagles play in the city where the breakthrough happened, and champion a cause that couldn’t hit closer to home.
Like many tourists, Dinoris wanted to run the “Rocky” steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with his daughter, Leah, and son, William, when they first came to town eight years ago. William is a big fan of boxing as well as the iconic “Rocky” movies, so the touristy trip to Philly made sense while mom, Brenda, was in Ohio attending a conference centered on autism.
So Peter booked a private tour that wound through the streets where fictional character Rocky Balboa (played by Sylvester Stallone) roamed in the movie. The tour culminated at the art museum. Peter warned the tour guide the outing might be short-lived. Leah, 8 years old at the time, has severe autism. Previous stops on their trip to the United States did not go well without Brenda.
Leah was in the midst of a three-year period where looking into her father’s eyes or simply hearing his voice sent her into extreme meltdowns. She would hit her head against walls or onto floors. That meant when Peter got home from work, he couldn’t talk until Leah was in bed.
“William, my younger son, that poor kid, didn’t hear me speak for three years unless we were out without her,” Peter said. “It was a very difficult time.”
But Leah loved the tour and instantly took to Philadelphia. With the day going so well, Peter decided to run up the steps while carrying her — Leah facing outward, of course, so there would be no eye contact — and she laughed and joyfully kicked her legs the whole way. When they got to the top, Peter took a chance and turned Leah around.
She kissed him.
“And she doesn’t give kisses,” Peter said. “I was crying, staring at the city.
“I thought: ‘We’re going to have a relationship. Things will change.’ I actually felt like a dad at that moment, which was a really deep, deep feeling.”
A big NFL fan, it was only natural to adopt the Eagles as his own. As fate would have it, his new favorite team created the Eagles Autism Challenge in 2018 — a biking/5K/sensory walk fundraising event — and the Eagles Autism Foundation in 2019, which has helped raise more than $9 million for autism research and care.
The Dinoris family has become one of its top donors through grassroots efforts in Australia, where they have called on local celebrities, sent hundreds of emails and have even purchased billboards to help spread the word. The family raised about $24,000 for this year’s Autism Challenge, which originally was scheduled for May before being moved to Sept. 26. They had planned to visit from Australia to participate in the festivities, but like many things, it was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Eagles still managed to raise more than $3 million for autism research and care through this year’s event, thanks to donors from 14 countries, nearly 3,000 virtual participants and 284 fundraising teams.
“So the Eagles, what they’re doing is raising substantial funds to get the research out there. When Leah was diagnosed back in those days, there was very little information around for autism, but now there’s substantial amounts. And the research is getting quite technical now and it’s improving the understanding of the children with autism. People’s acceptance of them as well is very important — understanding and just loving them rather than being scared of them. So it’s helped a long way not only for our family, but just for the community in general.”
For Eagles chairman/CEO Jeffrey Lurie, the cause is personal. His younger brother, Peter, is autistic. Growing up, Peter was non-verbal so he and Jeffrey bonded through music, spending hours in the pool listening to Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Things changed when Peter suddenly began communicating his emotions through typing when he was in his 30s, revealing an ocean of thoughts and feelings that until then had been below the surface.
Stories like Lurie’s and the ones shared by the Dinoris family are not unusual; in fact, they are becoming increasingly more common. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 54 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder, up from 1 in 150 in 2000.
“There are so many individuals around the world who share the same experiences as Peter and his family. I am one, as it has been part of my family’s journey for over 60 years,” Lurie said. “Being so close to it personally, you empathize with the Dinorises and with so many others who cope with the unique challenges that autism presents on a day-to-day basis. Leah is a wonderful daughter, sister and friend who brings great joy to everyone around her. As a community of supporters, we need to continue our mission of turning autism awareness into action for individuals like Leah and families everywhere.”
Peter’s relationship with Leah, now 16, has shifted dramatically since that initial trip to Philadelphia. Leah has only a handful of words, but two of them are “dad’s girl.” Peter called her “my best friend.” She is a music fanatic, so Peter wrote a song about her titled “The Dizer,” which is Leah’s nickname. He convinced local artist Nik Phillips to compose and record the song, which actually made it onto Australia’s Top 100 list, Peter said.
“We’re very close now. She won’t leave the house without me,” he said. “She won’t leave me alone now, which is the opposite, but I prefer this much better.”
The research into non-verbal communication has helped remove barriers. Leah has learned to use cards and an iPad to express her wants and needs. Instead of trying to guess what she is thinking, the Dinoris family now knows.
One thing that comes across clearly: Leah loves football. Peter’s son is a Dallas Cowboys fan, creating a division rivalry under their own roof, but Leah roots for the Eagles alongside her dad.
“She gets excited. We watched the Super Bowl [in 2018] together. She was very happy with that,” Peter said with a laugh.
The family has returned to Philadelphia twice since the breakthrough on the “Rocky” steps in 2012 and on each occasion, the city has had a relaxing effect on her.
Leah has gotten to the point developmentally where the family feels she would be able to handle a walk with other people around, so they’re very much looking forward to a return trip to participate in the Eagles Autism Challenge when circumstances allow.
“We still kept pushing to raise funds because that’s the most important bit,” he said, “and hopefully we’ll make it one year.”