Rodney & Holly Robinson Peete On Their Son’s Autism
(BlackDoctor.org) — Their success in the sports and entertainment worlds couldn’t prepare them for the awful truth they heard in the doctor’s office nearly a decade ago. But celebrity Apprentice star Holly Robinson Peete and her husband, former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete, somehow found the strength to face their son’s autism diagnosis.
“Afterwe both kind of cried and said, `Why us?’ But Holly very soon after that rolled up her sleeves and said, `Let’s get to work,”‘ Rodney recalls. “I was the opposite. I was angry more than anything else … I didn’t like to hear what the doctor was saying.”
In his recent autobiography, “Not My Boy!”, Rodney tells the intimate story of his family’s struggle with the diagnosis of R.J., (Rodney James), now 12.
At the time, R.J. was 3, a fraternal twin to his sister Ryan, who showed no symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder. As a toddler, R.J. was starting to form words, but around 2, he stopped talking and responding to his name or making eye contact. He began flapping his hands and flicking his ears in repetitive motion.
The Peetes took the twins to the best pediatrician they could find after R.J.’s preschool teacher told the couple he was not teachable. He needed physical, occupational and speech therapy, the doctors confirmed.
“My anger and denial left me in a lonely world,” Rodney writes. “I still thought when the (football) season was over and I could spend every day with him, we would fix this in our own way. I’d be his dad and I’d snap him out of this.”
So doing what he knew best, Rodney headed to the nearest sporting goods store to load up on soccer balls, footballs, baseballs, bats and mitts. But when he took R.J. to the park, the boy was only interested in throwing rocks into a nearby creek, over and over. Some days, he would kick the soccer ball. Then it could be days before that would happen again.
Rodney finally realized that learning to venture into his son’s world was a better option than trying to make R.J. a part of his. Once he was committed to “Team R.J.,” he says, he began taking the child to and from appointments – from three hours a day at a special school, to all the therapies the doctors had recommended.
Through it all, Rodney says, he began to learn how to work with his son and got down on the floor to play. This interaction technique, called Floortime therapy, is a way for parents and therapists to deeply engage autistic children in activities and problem solving.
“When I moved past my denial of R.J.’s condition, I was surprised by how I felt,” he explains in the book. “I felt liberated. Sure, at first I’d mourned the vision I’d had of the kind of father I would be to R.J. And I understood that I had to let go of all the images of fatherhood that I’d received from movies and television – from Ward Cleaver to Cliff Huxtable. I wanted to have as loving a relationship with R.J. as I’d enjoyed with my own dad, but I had to come to terms with the fact that it couldn’t be exactly the same.”
Since the diagnosis, the Beverly Hills family has grown with sons Robinson, 7, and Roman, 5. Each member has his or her own role in R.J.’s progress.
While his parents focus on a bigger picture that includes school, his twin sister, Ryan, 12, acts as his protector. The younger boys always want to play, which keeps R.J. engaged and working on his social skills, a challenge faced by those with autism.
R.J. has learned to look his parents in the eyes, tell them he loves them and even has asked for spaghetti for dinner. He’s made friends, plays soccer and basketball and is getting ready for middle school. He even appears on Fox Sports Net’s “Kid Pitch” with a segment of his own, “Stump Rodney.”
“We were nervous about it at first because he has autism and we didn’t want people to make fun of him. We’re protective of him. We were thrilled he wanted to do it,” says the former co-star of “21 Jump Street” and “Hangin’ with Mister Cooper.” “It’s a great opportunity for Rodney to represent the strength and uniqueness of kids who have autism.”
Yet, with any child, as they grow, new challenges arise. For the Peetes, it’s puberty. For young adults on the autism spectrum, this stage of development causes more confusion, aggression and some regression in the progresses made, Holly says.
“It’s very, very hard for him to sort out all of those hormones,” she says. “We are now faced with a new set of challenges.”
Ryan, R.J.’s twin, has joined her parents in reaching out to the community in sharing her experience with autism. She recently collaborated with her mom on a fictional children’s book, “My Brother Charlie,” based on her childhood experience with R.J.
Holly also has written her own book about autism and is active in the autism community, especially with Walk Now for Autism, which takes place Saturday at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. She and her husband also have created the HollyRod4Kids Foundation to help children with autism.
Their dreams include eventually opening an autism treatment center in Los Angeles, Holly says. Their vision is of a “one-stop-shop” where families can access treatment, including a restaurant where kids can be themselves. They even want to add a barber shop.
“Take your kid with autism to the barber and it’s a nightmare,” Holly says. “It takes a special type of person who can work with these kids.”
For now, the Peetes are focusing on the future, discussing homeschooling R.J. for middle school and spreading the word about this incurable disorder.
“Once we really started opening up about it and were sharing our story, I felt compelled to really try to help other fathers out there trying to deal with it,” Rodney says of his book. “From a man’s point of view, it’s a difficult situation and it’s not often talked about from a father’s point of view.”