When her son Rodney Jr. (a.k.a. RJ) was diagnosed with autism several years ago, actress, singer and author Holly Robinson Peete knew her life would change forever. What she didn’t predict, however, was that she’d become a fierce advocate for children with autism. The multitalented star’s latest book “Same But Different” details the struggles and joys of a family touched by an autism diagnosis.
“The experiences we wrote about are a patchwork quilt of our own and many other families that we have encountered,” she tells Mediaplanet. “I am especially proud that RJ and his twin sister are co-authors. Too often we read about people with autism and their siblings, but rarely do we hear directly from them about their emotions and experience. Their voices are crucial.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates autism’s prevalence as 1 in 68 children in the United States, which includes 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls. Despite these statistics, Holly urges that no two family’s experiences are the same.
“As a family, our journey on the ‘autism express’ has had many ups and downs. Autism is different for every individual; every family impacted by autism has a different ride.”
Founded in 1997, the HollyRod Foundation provides resources to families across the country affected by autism.
“We offer pre-vocational training to help prepare young adults with autism for employment with the RJ’s Place program,” she adds. “The unemployment rate in this community is remarkably high. We want to try to change that.”
Outside of the obstacles of autism, Holly insists that the Peete family is just like any other family. “Communication is key in our family dynamic with four kids between 12 and 20,” she laughs. “I’m raising my kids to be communicators and express their emotions in ways that will help them better navigate and manage life.”
Navigating social media
Like many mothers, Holly relies on technology to keep her family on the same page. “Our family texting string is legendary. It’s funny and gets the point across quickly,” she says.
Facebook and Instagram, however, present unique challenges. “Social media is difficult to process for many young people on the spectrum,” she states. “RJ, for instance, doesn’t always understand innuendo. He doesn’t always get euphemisms, analogies or metaphors. He is very literal with his communication.”
And though she prides herself on not being a “helicopter mom,” Holly makes sure her kids know not to post something they might regret later. “My kids are the first generation to be raised in a social media world. I want them to realize that when something is in the social cloud, it stays there and can have an impact on your future. Many times I’ve made my kids delete something that could be misconstrued and held against them.”
Holly’s advice for parents raising children on the spectrum? Ask for help.
“Being a parent is hard whether you have children with special needs or not. In my experience, what has helped me is connecting with other families — learning and sharing with [people] who are on the same journey. Their counsel has been critical to me, so I am always available to speak to families who are just getting a diagnosis and feeling lost.”