Most remember Holly Robinson Peete from hit television shows such as the police drama 21 Jump Street or the sitcom Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, but today the actress focuses on events occurring away from the camera. In honor of her
late father, who succumbed to Parkinson’s disease, she and husband, Rodney Peete, an ex-NFL quarterback, founded the HollyRod Foundation (www.hollyrod.org) in 1997. The organization helps families financially impacted by Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses. Just two years later, the 43-year-old received more life-changing news: her son, Rodney Jr., was diagnosed with autism, a disorder that impairs communications and social development.
After a brief bout with denial, the proud mother says she switched from survival to conquering mode-and it worked. Today, nearly 10 years later, her family has beaten the odds. Despite an initially dismal prognosis, Rodney Jr. is now a preteen who attends a mainstream school and is able to express his emotions. While fame and fortune may have aided the clan, Robinson Peete attributes her son’s successful progress to one thing: determination. BLACK ENTERPRISE caught up with Robinson Peete to discuss fighting for her child to have a normal life and how other black families can do the same.
What was it like first learning of your son’s autism?
Wow-not the best day! Devastating and hopelessness are two words that come to mind. There was no “Welcome to Autism” manual. We felt alone and lost. We were told a lot of “nevers,” such as he will never be accepted in a mainstream school and he will never say “I love you” unprompted.
What type of support system did you find or have to put in place?
I expected my mom and husband to be on the same page with me, but initially they weren’t there yet. I gave an ultimatum: Get on board or get gone! I just couldn’t do it alone. I’m lucky because they came around quickly. There is an 80% divorce rate among families dealing with autism.
Unfamiliarity may have contributed to your husband and mother’s initial response. Today, is everyone offering encouraging sentiments?
I have had members of my own family say that they still aren’t really able to admit that RJ even has autism because of their pride and ignorance. They were not thrilled about us speaking out on it but since then, we have been able to help force this issue to the front burner. We have ignited dialogue.
Often in the black community, discussing mental developmental issues is taboo. How can we overcome this stigma?
We must embrace mental health as a community and break away from this cultural fear of taking care of ourselves mentally. It is very dangerous to ignore autism due to “social embarrassment.” I am so fortunate to have been raised without such hang-ups. [Waiting for treatment] can cost your child valuable intervention time that you cannot ever recoup.
Do African Americans have the same resources and support as other ethnic groups dealing with autism?
We have the same access to info but we don’t investigate it like we