Actress Holly Robinson Peete has been very open about the joys and challenges of raising a child with autism. Her son, RJ, was diagnosed at age 3 and since then, Peete has worked tirelessly as an advocate for both children with autism and their families. In their hit reality TV show on OWN, ‘For Peete’s Sake,’ the Peetes let their fans into their world–the ups and the downs–to break down stereotypes about autism and famous families. HB talked to Peete about the show and what it’s like to raise a child with autism in honor of Autism Awareness Month this April.
HB: You just wrapped another season of ‘For Peete’s Sake,’ your docu-series with OWN that intimately invites your fans into your family life. What has been the most nerve-racking thing about filming a reality show?
Peete: Well it wasn’t easy waking up to 30 people in your house every morning that were not your family, but they quickly became family, and we all became pretty comfortable with the process. Especially this past season -I felt everyone was more relaxed and open to being documented more authentically.
HB: What has been the most rewarding thing about filming the show?
Peete: The most rewarding thing has been the level of awareness we have been able to raise on several issues that impact us deeply. Autism employment and law enforcement issues, Parkinson’s disease, former NFL football players health and wellness, just to name a few.
HB: It’s April, and it’s Autism Awareness Month. What misconceptions about autism would you like to change?
Peete: The biggest misconception is children with autism do not have the ability to be valuable to society. These children will grow up to be adults who need jobs and the big myth is someone with autism cannot be a valuable employee. In many cases, young adults with ASD can be your best and most trusted employee. I want more corporations to hire them and exploit their gifts, which are many. Microsoft, Walgreens, FedEx, Los Angeles Dodgers are just some companies that understand the value of employment of people with autism and other developmental disorders.
HB: As a mother of someone with autism, what would you say to mothers who are struggling with their own child’s diagnosis?
Peete: You have to be your child’s biggest and most staunch advocate. You have to push past “No” and fight every day for your kid. The world unfortunately is not very kind or compassionate to our children so we have to change that, and each parent can do their part.
HB: What have you learned the most from having a child with autism?
Peete: The biggest lesson I have learned from having a child with autism is that life is full of small yet important wins. The patience I have had to develop while caring for and advocating for RJ has given me a renewed perspective of the world has been an invaluable life lesson.
HB: Your husband talked about how hard it was for him to get onboard with treatment. Why do you think men can sometimes be resistant to accepting this type of diagnosis?
Peete: For men the autism diagnosis can be harder to process. Maybe because autism impacts boys disproportionately-so many men mourn the idea of the son they expected to have. What Rodney and many other dads were eventually able to do was change their expectations for who they wanted their kid to be, and embrace who he actually is. But it was not easy.
HB: How did coming together to help RJ help your marriage?
Peete: There is a very high divorce rate among parents with special need kids. That is due to the severe emotional, financial and often physical toll it can take on a couple. You lose yourself in your child’s care. Not every mom or dad is able to push past the difficulty to save their own marriage, but when they do the bond can become even stronger because of the journey they have endured together to help the child.
HB: How does tackling certain issues like consent and interacting with cops change when speaking to a child with autism?
Peete: People with autism process verbal cues differently. They don’t always interact in a proper way which can end up in tragedy. The reason for this is that very few law enforcement officers have had any training to know what autism looks like in their communities. We need to change that.
HB: Talk to me about the Holly Rod Foundation.
Peete: HollyRod started because my father Matthew Robinson had Parkinson’s disease and we met so many families who could not afford to care for their loved ones with Parkinson’s. Later, when RJ was diagnosed with autism we expanded our mission to include compassionate care for families impacted by autism. Our goal is to continue to serve both the Parkinson’s and autism communities with a focused priority on under-resourced families.
We have various events and initiatives during the month of April. To find out who you can support HollyRod, please visit www.HollyRod.org and/or follow us on social platforms.