At first glance, Holly Robinson Peete leads a charmed life. The actress, best known for her television roles in Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper and 21 Jump Street, is married to former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete. Together they’ve hosted a radio show, Meet the Peetes, on Sirius/XM. They also have four children. But Peete’s life has not been without its challenges. At age 3, her oldest son R.J. was diagnosed with autism. In recognition of National Autism Awareness month, Parent & Child sat down with Peete, who shared with us the trials and triumphs of a family coping with the disorder.
Parent and Child: What was it like for you when you first thought R.J. might be autistic?
Holly Robinson Peete: Well, you can only imagine. Here we have these twins, R.J. and Ryan, a boy and a girl, and everything is just grand. My career is booming. My husband’s career as a professional football player is booming, too. Then suddenly, R.J. stops acting like the other kids at birthday parties. He starts throwing tantrums, turning the lights on and off, and is consumed by lining things up. He no longer makes eye contact, and he stops responding to his name. It all happened so fast. My husband was away for football season at the time. I called him about R.J., but he went into denial. It was very tough.
P&C: How long was it before you got the diagnosis?
Peete: About 6 or 7 months. The developmental pediatrician was very cold about it. She gave me a discouraging long list of “nevers”: R.J. will never say he loves me unprompted, never meet me at the door, never have spontaneous conversation. He’ll never have his own driver’s license, and he’ll never be able to live alone.
P&C: How did you react to all that?
Peete: I was devastated. There were no positive stories. No one offered any hope of where this could go.
P&C: How have you and Rodney managed to get through it?
Peete: We united. One school wouldn’t accept R.J., and it was as if they were saying, “Your kid is unteachable.” But we moved on and found a great school that partnered with us. You need a school that says, “We’re going to get in this fight with you.”
P&C: How do your other children relate to R.J.?
Peete: Ryan, his twin sister, wrote a beautiful story about her experience with her brother. I e-mailed it to my girlfriends, and an agent got hold of it. It’s going to be a book [with Scholastic]. My Brother Charlie is expected out later this year. In this economy, you’ve got to get the kids working!
P&C: Has growing up with an autistic twin been difficult for Ryan?
Peete: I think the hardest thing was that R.J. wouldn’t play with her or even make eye contact. We were also so focused on R.J. that she got neglected. She had to hang in there, and she has become the most amazing sister and advocate for R.J. Then along came two other “therapists”: his brothers, Robinson (6) and Roman (4). It’s important to draw autistic kids out of their world, and let me tell you, nothing draws you out like an annoying little brother! Those two have poked and prodded R.J. so much he’s become the typical older brother, shouting, “Go away! You’re bugging me!”
P&C: And you’re happy about that?
Peete: Yes! That’s the kind of conversation, the kind of give and take, we were told he would never have. This big family of ours has become quite instrumental in helping R.J. We have overcome a lot of those “nevers,” and I want other families to know that they can, too.
When your own child has been diagnosed with autism . . .
A diagnosis of autism can be devastating. For guidance, we turned to Nancy D. Wiseman, mother of an autistic son and author of Autism Spectrum Disorders: An Essential Guide for the Newly Diagnosed Child.
- Don’t panic. You can’t predict exactly how your child will be affected. “Nobody can tell parents that their child will never speak — you just don’t know,” says Wiseman.
- Find your “A-Team.” Early intervention is key. Wiseman: “You need to set up a team of experts. Make sure doctors and therapists work with you and each other as partners.”
- Reach out. Get involved in a local support group, or find other parents to talk to online. They can help you cope and steer you to good referrals and resources.
- Know your child. People with autism often display unusual talents and skills. “Embrace and cherish the unique qualities your child has,” says Wiseman.
Do you have a question about autism? Autism expert Nancy D. Wiseman will answer your questions during April (National Autism Awareness Month) about early detection of autism in children and intervention efforts. To learn more, click here.