Photo courtesy of Holly Robinson Peete
"" star (and mom of four!) talks about the fears she’s faced as a mother of a child with autism, what makes her proud of her son, and a new partnership with Colgate to help make everyday tasks a little easier for people with autism.
Q: Your 20-year old son RJ has autism and you’ve been a huge autism advocate ever since his diagnosis at age 3. What would you tell other parents who are just beginning their journey after a child is diagnosed with autism?
The first thing I would say is that at the very least there is so much more information and intel than what we had even just in 2000 when RJ was diagnosed. This is the time to advocate and fight for your son or your daughter. The good news is there’s so much more awareness. Going to the dentist was a struggle and no one really understood that. I would have to call dentists and say, “Do you have any experience with children with autism?” Most of the time they wouldn’t. Now you can go and find dentists who only do that and specialize in special needs care. Anyone who’s getting a diagnosis today has much more access to information that’s going to make the life of their son or daughter much easier.
Q: Now there’s even an app, MagnusCards, to help make daily living tasks like changing bedsheets, ordering food and paying bills easier. Do you mind explaining why the partnership between Colgate and the app’s parent company, Magnusmode, is so important?
The app was designed by a young lady who has a brother with autism. It’s very difficult for people with autism to keep up with their oral hygiene and RJ didn’t have anything like this. The app really shows and demonstrates easy ways to take the scariness away from going to the dentist, which is a very difficult thing for families that have a kid with autism. It walks you through step-by-step how to brush your teeth. These are things that we take for granted, but when you have a kid with autism it is definitely a struggle.
Q: You slide through flash cards in the app, right?
Yes, there are flashcards in the app. People with autism are visual people, they’re visual learners and now they have an opportunity to learn like this. It’s designed especially for kids on the spectrum.
Q: What are your biggest challenges now that RJ is no longer a teenager?
The biggest challenges are how the world perceives him. I always tell people I wouldn’t change RJ for the world, but I would try to change the world for RJ. There’s so much stigma, misunderstanding and miscommunication when it comes to autism. The whole spectrum of autism is so wide it’s hard to explain to people and really educate people on what autism is if they don’t have firsthand experience. My fear for my son when he was younger was will he talk? Now he’s able to do that. Will he make friends? Well he was able to make friends for most of his life, but now he’s doing something they said he wouldn’t do, which is have a job. I fear for him when he’s driving if he gets stopped by the police, will they understand him? He’s quirky and he has sudden movements and I’ve trained him for that. For me, right now, I think my biggest fear for RJ at 20 years old is the community around him, people understanding him, someone taking advantage of him. He’s very naïve and sweet and trusting. Those are the things that I worry about.
Q: Can you tell us a little more about RJ’s job?
He works for the baseball team as a clubhouse attendant. In essence, he does everything to get the players ready to go. It’s a very, very hard job. It doesn’t sound that hard, but it’s very intense. RJ does everything from washing clothes to making sure every bat and ball is ready. It’s a very personal relationship that he has with them. He takes his job very seriously. People with autism tend to really thrive off schedule and making sure that they’re on time, and they like routine so RJ does not play when it comes to his job. He memorizes when he’s supposed to come in. He knows the entire 182-game schedule. That’s how his brain works so when players want to know who they’re playing in May or June or July, RJ can tell them. He doesn’t have to look at any list, and they think he’s amazing. It’s pretty cool so I’m absolutely thrilled for him to have this job.
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Q: Autism manifests itself differently with every person and every family, and we see yours on ‘.’ Can you talk about how autism has affected your family dynamics?
Autism is really at the heart and soul, the nucleus of our family. Dealing with his autism when he was diagnosed at a young age, we rallied around him and created “Team Peete.” He has a twin sister and she basically dropped a lot of her childhood to be with him and that was tough for her, but she was always there for him and always in his corner. We had two younger boys and they look out for him and they all look out for each other. It’s a team sport, autism. You gotta have a quarterback and a center and a wide receiver—you gotta have a whole football team. We wanted to really put this on TV because we never see this side of a family pushing through to help their son or daughter with autism.
Q: What changes have you witnessed over the years that make you excited for the future of autism?
I like that there are big companies like Colgate that would even think that it’s important enough to support MagnusCards and support the autism community. It’s something that we’ve been struggling with for years that no one really took into consideration. We purchase toothpaste every single day for our families and the fact that a company would not only look at us as consumers but also look at us as somebody who is absolutely trying very hard to deal with other issues, it’s a big deal.
Q: What do you wish more people knew about autism?
Just how beautiful these kids are. That they can be part of society and be a really valuable part of the community. I wish people knew that. I love that people are getting to know RJ on “Meet the Peetes” because they think he’s so amazing and lovely and awesome, but so are all kids impacted by autism. RJ coming out and talking about his autism publicly might take the stigma away from somebody else’s kid’s situation. The more people who understand what autism is and have a frame of reference, the less scared they are and the less stigma there is.