I’m not someone who’s starstruck. Sure I appreciate talent and I am an avid movie goer. Sure, I’d have a hard time giving up my favorite television shows or Netflix account, but I don’t look to movie and television stars as my heroes or role models. That is until I met Holly Robinson Peete. She’s an actress, author, talk show host, philanthropist, and—where I find inspiration the most—mom to four children, one with autism.
In 1997, Holly and her husband, former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete, formed the HollyRod Foundation, to help with Parkinson’s disease. (Her father, the original “Gordon,” on Sesame Street, had Parkinson’s.) Then in 2005, inspired by their eldest son’s autism diagnosis, the foundation’s mission expanded to provide support and resources for those with autism. Through the HollyRod Foundation and her own family’s personal experiences, she has become a leading advocate for reliable education, awareness and support for autism.
As a mom who also has a son on the autism spectrum, I discovered a kindred spirit who is as passionate as I am about helping to create a world where our children valued and accepted. She’s definitely a mom on a mission! I had an opportunity to see Holly present and then sit down with her one-on-one at the inspirational Power of Possibilities, an event hosted by Community Gatepath to honor people with disabilities.
You talk openly about your family’s journey with autism. When did it begin?
At 2 years old, I noticed that my son RJ stopped making eye contact and interacting with his twin sister. It was just the most bizarre situation and I didn’t really know how to process it or know what to do. I knew in my gut—you know, that mommy’s intuition—that something was wrong. It was a challenging time to figure out what was going on. When he was diagnosed with autism, I felt so empty at the time and so lost.
What did the doctors tell you?
They told us what he would never be and all the things he would never do – how he wouldn’t make it through school, never have real friends, never have a real conversation, never say “I love you,” and never play sports. They gave us no hope for anything. Now 15 years later, at age 18, my son has proved all of those “would nevers” all wrong!
What’s your son like today?
He is so phenomenal and advocates for himself. He has challenges but he has a very bright future and I’m so proud of him because he’s been able to show that you NEVER let anybody limit the expectations or possibilities for your child’s life.
That’s so similar to our experience with our son with autism. We’ve always believed in unlimited possibilities for him and now as an adult, he’s thriving even though the world isn’t always so kind or compassionate.
I always say, I wouldn’t change my son for the world because he’s amazing, but I would change the world for my son.
Well said! How do we get those outside the autism community to care?
I urge everyone who has any kind of platform—whether it’s a church, your local club, or in your child’s class—to spread awareness about autism or special needs and how valuable our children are…do it so there’s always hope for them.
Unlike you, many others in Hollywood won’t speak out about their own personal experiences—Why is that?
They are afraid of the stigmas still attached to autism. Lately, there has been movement in the right direction but I want a seismic shift off the Richter scale when it comes to having more public figures and CEOs speaking about autism. And I want a national autism initiatives agenda for our country. Our kids need services, transition support out of high school and employment opportunities.
You are taking your autism advocacy to a new level, aren’t you?
Yes, we’re filming “For Peete’s Sake” an upcoming new docuseries and an insider’s look into our family’s life on the Oprah Winfrey Network. It comes at a time when RJ gets his first job and it will show the realities of his growing up and becoming more independent.
What outcome would you like to see happen as a result of the docuseries?
I hope that the show will put an even greater national spotlight on autism awareness and the need for employment opportunities. I want the mainstream to see how valuable those with autism and special needs are to society. And I hope that people and companies will learn that it’s beneficial to look beyond disabilities to discover there’s “power in possibilities.”
Leave us with a parting thought…
Embrace the out-of-the box…you’ll be surprised and delighted with what you’re going to get.